Celtic players are still winners and 'natural instincts' will kick in during title run-in with Rangers, vows Neil Lennon

Celtic's long reign as the dominant force in Scottish football has been tipped to come to an end after eight years following their cataclysmic 2-1 defeat to Rangers at Parkhead at the end of December.
The Celtic players applaud the fans at the end of the Old Firm clash in DecemberThe Celtic players applaud the fans at the end of the Old Firm clash in December
The Celtic players applaud the fans at the end of the Old Firm clash in December

A shift in the balance of power in the game in this country from the East End of Glasgow to Govan is, with Steven Gerard’s team now just two points behind Neil Lennon’s side in the Ladbrokes Premiership table with a game in hand, anticipated by many fans and commentators.

Yet, Lennon fully expects normal service to be resumed when the treble treble winners return to action with a William Hill Scottish Cup fourth round tie against Partick Thistle at Firhill on Saturday evening after a highly productive winter training camp in Dubai last week.

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The Northern Irishman, who urged his charges to hold on to how they felt after the loss to their city rivals and use it to drive them on during their trip to the Middle East, doesn’t believe the last 90 minutes they played, disappointing though they were, have changed anything.

He insisted his players, who have lifted the last ten domestic trophies, are still winners and predicted their “natural instincts” will kick in during what promises to be a fraught and exciting Scottish title run-in.

“I have confidence in these guys,” he said. “I have no reason to not have confidence in them because they have been at the sharp end for a long time and they are still at the sharp end.

“They have to hold onto the disappointment and how they felt and make sure that doesn’t replicate itself again or that they have to go through that emotion again. They aren’t used to it because they have had so much success.

“They have been brilliant over the last few years, but eventually there is going to be a bad week or a bad day or a bad result here and there. We are just looking for a reaction and in the main their reaction has been excellent.

“Natural instincts will kick in again, they are winners, they want to win. We don’t want to give anything up lightly. Now we are putting the core work in and the springboard for the second half of the season."

Lennon, whose team went on a 13 game winning run domestically after losing to Livingston at the Tony Macaroni Arena back in October, conceded there is now no margin for error in their bid to win a record-equalling ninth consecutive Scottish title come May.

When asked what Celtic had to do when play resumed, he said: “Try and win every game, it’s as simple as that. And not get too distracted by everything else. Every point is a prisoner from here on in.

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“The important thing is to hit the ground running when we get back. Obviously we have got the cup game first and then we have got the midweek game. I think they will be looking forward to getting back into it.

“The break has been great, but football is what matters and they will want to get back into it as soon as possible. In terms of the title race, just concentrate on what you are doing, don’t get distracted by anything else.”

The 48-year-old, who has won no fewer than nine leagues as both a player and a manager during his time in Glasgow, knows the dynamic in the Premiership can change again with just one win or defeat and wants his men to take each game as it comes.

“It can flip in one weekend,” he said. “That’s how finely balanced it is. You can’t look three or four games down the line. We have just got to say ‘bump, this is what we’ve got, let’s see what the team is, let’s adapt to the opposition as best we can’.

“I think we’ve had a great first half of the season, I really do, honestly. Just the way it ended sort of put a downer on things, but if I have to look at the overall picture it has been better than what I expected.

“It (the title race) is just like any other one down the years, really. This time last year it was neck and neck as well, wasn’t it? There’s maybe more on this one because we’re going for nine and a lot of people want to see that stopped.

“But we can only concentrate on ourselves and not get too down and not get too carried away. We have a bit of work to do and have done some of that this week.

“There’s been some intense work and the players are fresh now. The climate in Dubai was perfect and the facilities were excellent so I think they enjoyed it.”