Neil Lennon knows that this afternoon’s Betfred Cup semi-final will serve up many challenges but personal experience has also taught him that his Hibernian team will not be the only ones forced to face up to them.
The 2-2 draw at Celtic Park two weeks ago has given his Leith side belief that they can test the resolve and the record unbeaten run of Brendan Rodgers’ team and he hopes they will be aided by the weary legs and subconscious fears of some of the Celtic players.
“You can look at it two ways,” he said of Celtic’s Champions League showing away to Bayern Munich on Wednesday. “There could be a backlash. I’ve played in games like that where we’ve had the runaround and the first thing you want to do is get back on the pitch again. Or, they could be a little bit sore. There could be a bit of fatigue, mentally and physically. If there is, we absolutely need to take advantage of that.
“Knowing the character of Brendan and his team, though, we’re more likely to see the former – a backlash. Because they do bounce back very well. Look, this is a team who are unbeaten domestically in over a year.”
But the fact that last season’s treble winners are now unbeaten in 59 successive domestic games may actually work in his players’ favour, according to Lennon. The hope was given extra credence by Callum McGregor, who claimed that John McGinn’s second goal in the recent head to head, to give Hibernian the lead with just ten minutes of the league tussle remaining, had prompted mild panic in the home ranks, with players fearing that may be the match in which the run ended.
In the end they forced a draw but in cup competition they don’t have that safety net. “There will be an anxiety surrounding it the longer it goes on,” acknowledged Lennon. “Someone is going to beat them at some stage. We came close but not close enough. That wasn’t my main aim at Parkhead and it’s not at Hampden; that is to win the game. It’s irrelevant to me what Celtic’s record is.
“But I think there will be a huge amount of pride that goes along with their record. But people talk and talk and talk about it and sometimes that can nag at the back of your mind, subconsciously – that desire not to lose it. You can get antsy about it. It’s up to the opposition, us, to get into a position where they are put under pressure.”
This is the fifth time in six competitions that Hibernian have reached the semi-finals of a major knock-out competition. That cup pedigree is something they need to cash in on according to the manager, who is desperate to lead them to a trophy.
The last time they tried – last season against Aberdeen, in the Scottish Cup – they started the tie poorly and left themselves too much to do to overhaul the deficit. But there are players in the ranks who have upset odds and have cherished memories of winning silverware at the national stadium and Lennon hopes that big-game players such as Anthony Stokes can reprise past contributions.
The last time the Irishman was at Hampden in a Hibs strip, he netted twice to end the club’s fabled Scottish Cup drought and Lennon believes he can help them to another trophy this season.
“I’m hoping he is the same tomorrow,” said Lennon. “He is playing well, he has started off really well this season and these are the kind of games that get his juices flowing so hopefully he can replicate that kind of form.”