NEIL LENNON last night praised his Celtic players for a perfect response to their recent poor run of SPL results and insisted they will be unstoppable in the title race if they maintain the performance level displayed in the crushing 4-0 win over Hearts at Tynecastle.
Just four days after he publicly stated a willingness to resign as Celtic manager after a verbal clash with some supporters during the 1-0 home defeat against Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Lennon was able to celebrate his 100th victory in the job.
Goals from Lassad Nouioui, Mikael Lustig and a Ryan
Stevenson own goal put Celtic 3-0 ahead inside half an hour before Gary Hooper’s 12th goal of the season wrapped up an emphatic victory seven minutes from time.
It leaves Celtic one point clear of Hibs at the top of the SPL with a game in hand, the Easter Road club having also returned to winning ways last night at St Johnstone.
But Lennon is confident Celtic will retain the championship in style if they address the vagaries in form which has seen them drop 17 points already in the current campaign.
“We need to find a consistency,” said Lennon. “Once we do that, we will take some stopping. We felt going into tonight’s game that if we won, it would put a different complexion on it at the top of the league.
“It has certainly done that. It was the performance we were looking for, regardless of the scoreline. If we had won the game 1-0, I’d have been delighted with that. To win it so emphatically is very, very pleasing.
“The players have set a bar and I know they are capable of those performances. We have to find the reason why things aren’t going so well at home, whether it is a lack of intensity or whatever. Our forward play tonight was like night and day compared to what it was against Inverness.
“The players know that taking one point out of nine at home to Kilmarnock, St Johnstone and Inverness was not good enough when you look at the talent we have. They don’t owe me anything, they just owe it to themselves. If they play like they did tonight, I’ll be very, very happy.
“I don’t want to keep having to look for reactions from them. I want us to be consistent. It was a great performance, particularly in the first half. We looked
clinical and really played at a great tempo.
“I think the players enjoyed being under the lights and it was a cracking atmosphere. I could tell in training over the last
couple of days that there was a real intensity about them and I got the reaction I was looking for. I can’t ever question their character. I know what I’ve got here. That’s why I defend them so vigorously at times. They are young and there are times when they let themselves down with a little bit of inconsistency.”
Despite the margin of victory, Celtic were grateful to a stellar display from their goalkeeper Fraser Forster. The Englishman
was in impeccable form, topping off his flawless night with an 89th-minute penalty save to deny Hearts captain Marius Zaliukas even a consolation goal.
“I could go through the whole team and single people out tonight but the goalkeeper made three unbelievable saves for us,” added Lennon. “He is in a really good place. He has been a huge player for us in terms of qualifying for the Champions League this season.
“I know there were people who said he would go backwards if he came to Glasgow to play but he has done anything but that. He has taken his career forward in a big way and I think he is one of the best around.”
Hearts manager John McGlynn was left to reflect ruefully on the quality of Forster’s performance, which he felt placed an unfair reflection on his team’s efforts.
“You can understand why Forster has been called into the England squad,” said McGlynn. “He was outstanding tonight at key moments of the game. If we’d scored at those moments, it might have turned it in our favour.
“It is a bit demoralising when a goalkeeper plays like that against you. We had our chances but he pulled off some great saves.
“From the same amount of opportunities tonight, Celtic have four goals to show for it.
“The scoreline was harsh on us, because we put an awful lot into the game. I don’t think it was a 4-0. By all accounts, the statistics of the game are a lot closer than the scoreline was.
“We went in 3-0 down at half-time, when it could easily have been 2-2. Forster had a great save from Ryan Stevenson’s free-kick and the follow-up from it, while Callum Paterson had a free header.
“Celtic were clinical on the night. They took their chances, which they didn’t do at the weekend against Inverness. Celtic have options up front and we don’t have that luxury.
“We had a lot of young players on the park tonight and they will learn from the experience of playing in a match when Celtic were firing on all cylinders.
“But our guys tried to play. I felt our younger players played well. They tried to keep the ball. Ryan McGowan did well down the right, the centre backs were good and Callum Paterson worked extremely hard up front.”
Hearts must now regroup for Sunday’s Scottish Cup tie against Hibs at Easter Road with McGlynn suffering more woe on the injury front last night.
“I might have to change things on Sunday,” he said. “Jason Holt and Dylan McGowan both picked up injuries tonight, so that’s going to be an issue for us. Sunday is a massive game for us but there are still positives to take from tonight. There was nothing wrong with the players’ spirit or attitude.”