There has been a curious desire to downplay the 10-in-a-row chasing Scottish champions’ prospects for a confrontation that they go into with the best record in the Premiership, despite failing to hit the heights. It happened before the first derby of last season, and ahead of the Betfred Cup final in Demember - only for Celtic to win both.
“Our preparations have been good, as best as we possibly could get them under the circumstances,” said Lennon. He did so in reference to Celtic’s build-up being hampered by the loss of defenders Nir Bitton and Hatem El Hamed to positive tests on Israel duty, and the authorities’ refusal to allow Ryan Christie to be considered through being deemed a close contact in the Scotland camp to Stuart Armstrong, who returned a positive test. As did Odsonne Edouard, likely only to make the bench after 10 days self-isolating in France, from where he returned on Friday.
“I take no notice of what people will predict or what they think the outcome will be, because it doesn’t really matter,” said Lennon. “They don’t know what is going on or how we’ve prepared for the game. I’m delighted if they want to write us off, they’ve done that many times before [and we have proved ourselves] time and time again. It’s just about winning the game. I think it gives you a psychological lift if you can win the first one, but I don’t think it will have a major bearing on the outcome of the season. It’s too early for that. We heard all that chat at the end of December [after losing to Rangers] that we were finished, blah blah blah.
‘We then came out all guns blazing. It’s really difficult to predict a season. What I am pleased with is our consistency, the win ratio, the clean sheets. I think there’s more to come from the team, and more to come from individuals as well. It’s been quite stop-start the season in terms of games being cancelled and international breaks. So it’s been difficult to get any sort of momentum. But we’ve negotiated those circumstances very well.”
Lennon doesn’t pretend that there won’t be an unprecedented set of circumstances to negotiate as his club play host to Rangers at an empty Celtic Park because of Covid-19 pandemic restrictions. The absence of supporters he believes won’t play in his team’s favour, though they lost the last meeting between the teams 10 months ago in front of a capacity home crowd.
“One of the great things about these games is the atmosphere it generates, the colour, the noise and the intensity. Just that crackle in the air,” added Lennon. “All of that is going to be different, so it’s going to be like no other. The players are 15 or 16 games in to playing with no supporters, even on international duty. Whether you get used to it or not, I think you become more accustomed to it. It’s certainly not ideal and it does take away the home advantage, there’s no question about that.”