There were a few eyebrows raised when Neil Lennon boldly hailed his Hibernian side as “the second-best team in the country” – despite losing out to Aberdeen in last season’s Scottish Cup semi-final.
Still a Championship side at that time, they have spent their first term back in the top tier trying to live up to their manager’s rhetoric. Which is why, when Celtic head to Easter Road tomorrow, looking for the victory that will officially crown them champions for the seventh successive year, their hosts will be aiming at their own targets.
Three points behind Rangers and Aberdeen in the scramble for second place, they have five games in which to overhaul that gap and fulfil their manager’s lofty ambition.
“Well, we played the second best in the country and, on the day, I felt we were the better team,” said Lennon, recalling last season’s clash with the Dons. “We started off dreadfully. It was a semi-final and we were 2-0 down and I took off Fraser Fyvie after 30-odd minutes. We got it back to 2-2 and the game could have gone either way and we played some very good football that day. So, Aberdeen were the second best team in the country then and I felt we were there or thereabouts. As a challenge, the players have taken that on and we have played some great football this season. It has been expansive, attacking football.”
A minor stutter through the final six weeks of the year, where draws and defeats both outnumbered wins, has been the only real blemish on a comeback season that has lived up to the hype. Beaten just once in the past 14 outings, Lennon hopes they can use that momentum to see out the final five games and finish with a flourish.
“I’ve always believed,” said Lennon, pictured. “I said at the start of the season it would be Celtic, then Aberdeen and Rangers, then the rest of us fighting it out. But we now have a chance to break into that second bracket. If we play the way we have been, depending on other results, there’s no reason why we can’t.”
Of the three challengers for the runners-up spot, the Leith side are the only ones not dented by last weekend’s cup results. Their tournament exit, to rivals Hearts in January, had already served to focus their minds and proved the incentive needed to piece together a run of results that has seen them beaten only once on league duty since mid-December. Meanwhile, Rangers and Aberdeen will have to prove their mettle and respond as positively from dressing-room meltdowns, and, in Aberdeen’s case, pointed criticism from their manager Derek McInnes, who conceded that his squad recruitment could maybe have been better.
“I’m not convinced that the semis will have a huge impact on coming games,” said Lennon. “Aberdeen have been there and done it over a few years. Yes, for a couple of days they will be down but Derek will pick them up. Rangers have had a tumultuous week but sometimes you get strength through adversity and they will come again. I think we need to win four games to finish second and that is a big ask. Listen, we are in good form and some of the attacking football we are playing is very, very pleasing but we now have five cup finals.”
So, while Brendan Rodgers’ men are looking to wrap up seven in a row, Lennon, who was at the helm of the Parkhead club for the first three titles in that sequence, will be doing everything he can to ensure they have to wait.
“I’ve had enough [title parties], I’ve had plenty! They are great days but I don’t want one at our expense. They can win it next week,” he said.
Celtic will be favourites to get the job done but Lennon has experienced enough title races to know that crossing the line can be tough whether the pack are closing in or they have the home straight to themselves.
“Sometimes, because you can almost touch it, there is a an anxiousness, and there is a rush to get there,” he added. “We all know they are going to win it eventually but we have a bit to play for so we are not just going to make it a day out for Celtic.”
Against the top teams they have tended to deliver their more positive performances. They have enjoyed two draws with the leaders and although there have been defeats in the league and the League Cup, the displays have not always disappointed.
“The mentality has been good,” said Lennon. “They have believed in themselves. They have gone out on the front foot and taken the game to the opposition when they can.
“I don’t think we were great at Easter Road in the 2-2 [against Celtic]. I thought we got away with one that day. In the end we could have won it but we also could have definitely lost it. For an hour we weren’t good enough. Then we lost at Celtic Park [at the end of January] having played brilliantly. I felt we deserved something because the second half was a very dominant performance by the players.
“If we play like we did in December at home, we could be in a for a long afternoon but, obviously, we don’t want Celtic to win the title at our ground. We have our own priorities and we want the points.”