Neil Lennon confident Celtic in good shape to go one better

IN RELAXED mood ahead of the opening weekend of the new season's SPL campaign, Celtic manager Neil Lennon believes his team are comfortable with the tag of favourites.

Rangers have won the championship for the past three seasons, but Lennon insisted that the agony his squad and supporters suffered as last term's title drifted from their grasp to Ibrox, not to mention the Old Firm storm with now Rangers manager Ally McCoist, the shocking hate mail and pitchside attack from a Hearts fan at Tynecastle, had not caused him a troubled summer.

He has added to the squad, with players that would not trouble the likes of Manchester United and Barcelona, but young and versatile talents he has been impressed with in training so far. Lennon is without Paddy McCourt, Darren O'Dea and Norwegian Thomas Rogne for the opening SPL match away to Hibs tomorrow, and also the suspended Scott Brown, but believes they are niggling injuries and all three will be fit in days rather than weeks.

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He was even happy to joke with the media at Lennoxtown yesterday over meetings with referees and police, the latter pitching up today, as part of visits to all SPL clubs, to talk to players "about their responsibilities on the pitch and probably mine off it!" When asked how he took being labelled favourites for the SPL crown, he shrugged. "I'm happy to take that on," he said. "In the majority of games that we play throughout the season, we are favourites going into those games, probably heavy favourites for a lot of matches, so that thing does not bother me and it will not faze the players.

"We'll try and hit the ground running and it could be difficult as it has been such a short close season. The expectation level has risen on the back of last season so we go into the title race as favourites. We embrace that and hope to go one better and hope we can play as well as we did from January onwards for the majority of the season.

"We don't have to change a lot really. We finished on 92 points, so there's a lot of consistency there. We played a lot of great football.

"We had a couple of games in December when we were ahead and the squad wasn't at its best, so we just need to see games out a little bit better at times maybe.

"But, I didn't fret all summer. I want to win, obviously, that's important. It might be a case that I have to win it this year; I realise that. But it didn't eat away at me. I feel we're not far away from having a good team, a really good team. It's a young team but with another year's experience you hope that they know what's coming this time."

It will please many in Scottish football to see Lennon calm, not least match officials, at least before a ball is kicked. The Northern Irishman joined his fellow SPL managers at a pre-season meeting with the officials on Thursday and was enthusiastic with what he heard about their plans for the coming season.Managers have been told that only one member of the coaching staff can spring from the dug-out into the technical area to issue instructions at one time, and spoke of how the old disciplinary points system had been changed to one where instead of accruing points for yellow and red cards players will now incur a one-match ban when they reach six yellows, and a two-match ban if they accrue another six, with still the automatic one-match for a red card.

He went so far as to praise the presentation by John Fleming, the SFA's Head of Referee Development, as bringing clarity to the situation on the touchline particularly. Naturally, after the suspension he was handed last season for his controversial spat with McCoist, and general machine-gun of criticism fired on authority, Lennon stopped short of a love-in with officialdom and admitted there remained "one or two things" he had not had the chance to take up with Fleming - which he will do by phone - which instantly conjured up the picture of the official beating a retreat to the door on Thursday as Lennon turned in his direction. He remains unhappy too that suspensions can carry over from one season to the next, which is why Celtic captain Brown will miss the opening two games of the new season.

As for guidelines on what a manager should do in the technical area when attacked by a fan, Lennon laughed, adding: "No, that was one that didn't come up."

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We may still be in the year 2011, but the first six months of it seem a world away to the one Lennon inhabits now. The break, as short as it was, and a few weeks in the Australian winter has done the trick.

However, the manager was typically honest when asked if his players were in the best possible shape for tomorrow's trip to Easter Road. Lennon confirmed that he watched Hibs draw 1-1 in the friendly with Falkirk on Tuesday night before Celtic edged Cardiff City in the Welsh capital 1-0 the following evening, and is ready for the challenge, but his players, he admitted, might take a few weeks to get up to speed.

The bizarre start where the clubs have friendlies still after this weekend's opener - Celtic host Wolves next Wednesday, which will also be a second trial for Croatian international goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa, and then play Inter Milan, a League of Ireland select and Swansea City - he expects to aid that process.

"I wouldn't say they're ready to go, but they're as ready as they can be," he said. "We had three games in Australia, we took two squads to give everyone some game time, and it was important to have the Cardiff game because some of them hadn't had a full 90 minutes."But between Sunday and Aberdeen we have four 'pre-season' games! So it's important we push through Sunday and try to win the game and then almost re-plan it for Aberdeen."

As for where the threats might materialise, and indeed there will be any serious challenge to the Old Firm this season, or whether the Glasgow clubs will again push on past the 90s for points in 2011-12, Lennon remained sanguine.

"You never know, do you? You just don't know how the season will pan out. Both teams (Celtic and Rangers] showed a lot of consistency in the second half of last season, and they both got off to a great start as well.

"I think it's important to make that kind of start again and if we do you could be looking at that sort of total again."