They were ten minutes from victory the last time they met. Up against a Celtic team who have gone nearly 60 domestic games unbeaten, Hibernian ran them close. But the dream was short-lived. Three minutes after John McGinn’s 77th minute goal had put the Easter Road men in front, Callum McGregor equalised.
For Neil Lennon, that simply illustrates the magnitude of the task awaiting his men next weekend, when the teams face up again, this time in the League Cup semi-final.
“It’s an incredible effort to go this length of time undefeated and it’s underplayed at times,” said the Hibs boss. “The league is getting better, it’s getting stronger. I don’t think it was great last year but Rangers have spent, Aberdeen have recruited well and a lot of teams are stronger.
“It will be interesting to see how long they can go undefeated. It would be a great effort – nigh impossible – to do it two seasons in a row. We were almost there in the last game and one day they will have a bad day and someone will capitalise. It’s up to us, the other clubs, to do it.
“While we enjoyed the day and the result last time out, it’s gone now and this is a totally different game. It’s a real opportunity to win some silverware from our point of view. We have to look at it as being two games away from winning a cup and that’s really important for a club like us.”
Lennon is not someone used to succumbing to a feeling of inferiority, not in football, where shocks and surprises are what keeps the bookies in business and allows hope to blossom and, having seen how cup winners are lauded in Leith, he is set on doing his bit to bring silverware to the club and write his name into the club’s history.
“It’s a competition we want to win. It would be huge to win a major trophy as a manager here. I enjoyed the promotion and it was important to me personally as well as the club. I’ve got a long-term contract and winning trophies is hopefully part of that but you have to earn it.
“The next obstacle is the biggest one you can get in Scottish football but we’ll try and play as well as we did at Celtic Park, with that same bravery and mentality. “
The Leith outfit are no slouches, showing a certain pedigree in knockout tournaments in recent times. As well as casting aside the Scottish Cup hoodoo in 2016, they have reached the semi-finals of five of the last six cup competitions. The last – a 3-2 defeat to Aberdeen in last season’s Scottish Cup – left him feeling frustrated, though.
“We’ve worked really hard to get to this stage and we won’t give it up lightly. As a club we’ve been to Hampden a lot recently and I thought we could take comfort from that going into the semi-final last season – but then we didn’t turn up for half an hour!
“I’m hoping for a better start to the game than we did last season. In the end we played very well and lost to a deflection.
“When I think of that game I see it as one that maybe got away. I didn’t think there was anything between the teams but there certainly was in the first half hour.
“We can’t start like that against Celtic or it could be a really long afternoon so it’s about learning from that experience.”
He is, instead, hoping that it is their opponents who have a slow start, allowing his men to cash in on the neutrality of the venue and the fact that Celtic may be weary from midweek exertions in Germany.
Just as they were when the teams met on league duty, Brendan Rodgers’ men will go into the match with Hibs on the back of a draining Champions League contest. Having been there and done it, as a manager and player at the Parkhead club, Lennon, knows the assistance it may offer his men.
“Any advantage we can take from it, we will have to. They’ll be playing in Munich on the Wednesday night and then only have maybe a day and a half to recover.
“We are going to try and make the most of that. The mental and physical approach… it’s really difficult… subconsciously with players you are up there with Champions League and then you dip after the game. Then you’ve got to try and pick yourself back up again.
“Maybe the fact that it’s a semi-final might make it easier for the players to zip themselves up again. But even from my own experiences as a player it is difficult, in that short space of time, to recover as quickly as you’d have liked.
“Does that mean you can catch them earlier in the game, catch them cold? Or maybe wear them down later on? It can work both ways.
“We actually came on strong in the second half at Celtic Park and maybe there was a bit of fatigue in their players but, look, they’ve a squad that has got real depth, power and pace. So whatever team he plays on Wednesday and whatever team he plays on Saturday they will be very, very strong.
“They are holders of the Cup so will want to defend it as best they can, will want to keep their unbeaten record going. So it’s still going to need a big effort from us.”