Neil Lennon must make most of home run

WEATHER and stadium footprint permitting, Celtic will return from an enforced 23-day lay-off tonight with an opportunity to reclaim pole position in the SPL table.

• Celtic's Korean pair of Ki Sung-Yueng, left, and Cha Du-Ri prepare for tonight's game but will miss the New Year Old Firm game through international duty. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS

The visit of Kilmarnock is scheduled to be the first of three successive home games for Neil Lennon's side over the festive period before they face Rangers at Ibrox on 2 January in the second Old Firm showdown of the season.

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It is a potentially pivotal spell of fixtures for Lennon and his hopes of securing the championship success which will determine his longer term future as Celtic manager. Initially appointed on a 12-month contract last summer, following an interim spell in charge, he revealed yesterday that he has had no discussions with the club's hierarchy regarding an extension.

Neither does he expect to do so until a proper assessment can be made of his work in trying to wrest domestic pre-eminence away from champions and rivals Rangers for the first time in three years.

"There's been nothing said about my contract," said Lennon. "It will be based on results. We'll see how things go over the next few months but I'm not going to bang any doors down. I'll just concentrate on what I'm doing at the minute.

"My remit was to turn things around. You won't be able to evaluate that until later on down the line."

Having dropped ten points in the past seven league games they played before the winter weather forced them to be idle for three weeks, Lennon anticipates his players will resume the title race with renewed vigour.

"This is an important time of the season, more so than ever because of the enforced break," he said. "I hope there will be a freshness from us. There might be a bit of rustiness to start with, but from a physical point of view, they will be fresh.

"Any aches and pains they've had will be gone, while we have got several boys coming back from injury which gives the squad a massive boost. We've got four big games coming up and it's important that we get a consistent run going again."

Tonight's fixture is normally as big a home banker as it is possible to get on the SPL fixture list, given Kilmarnock's well documented failure to win at Celtic Park since 1955.

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Lennon, however, is wary of the threat posed by a team who have been rejuvenated in hugely impressive fashion under Mixu Paatelainen this season and who moved into fifth place in the table with Saturday's 2-1 defeat of Hibs.

"Kilmarnock have played very well," added Lennon. "I watched them against Rangers, when they played really well, and they also did well against us when we went to Rugby Park earlier in the season.

"They've got a bit of variety in their play.Conor Sammon had has an exceptional season so far and they've got top quality there in Alexei Eremenko. Craig Bryson is also a good player, he has been for a while at this level, and their full-backs Jamie Hamill and Ben Gordon like to get forward as well.

"I think they play the game the right way. Compared to Kilmarnock teams of the past, no disrespect to them, there is a real freshness and a new concept of the way to play.

"It is obviously beneficial to them, because I don't think anyone would have envisaged them being where they are in the table at this stage of the season."

Captain Scott Brown could make his first appearance since 2 October tonight, having recovered from a foot problem, and is joined in Lennon's squad by Beram Kayal, Emilio Izaguirre and James Forrest who are also available again following injury.

Lennon is especially enthused by the return of 19-year-old winger Forrest who started the season impressively before being sidelined by an ankle injury. The manager revealed he hopes to secure the Scotland under-21 international's services on a longer term contract.

"We hope to sit down with him next week and extend his deal," said Lennon.

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"We feel his progress merits that. He's been fantastic. He has lit the place up whenever he's been involved. Like with Scott Brown, we have missed James and we are pleased to see him back.

"He is definitely the type of player we want at the club. He eliminates people, excites supporters and scores goals. He's still a kid, so we're not getting carried away, but we see enough in his progress to warrant a new deal."

Lennon, meanwhile, is preparing to be without the services of South Korean duo Cha Du Ri and Ki Sung Yeung for a month after failing in a bid to delay their departure to play in next month's Asian Cup finals tournament in Qatar. Full-back Cha and midfielder Ki will now join up with their national squad after this Sunday's game against St Johnstone.

The will be part of a training camp in Abu Dhabi from December 26, before playing Syria in a friendly four days later - prior to the start of the tournament on 10 January.

"We made an effort to keep them until after the Old Firm match," said Lennon, "but there were no takers on it. They have both been influentual this season and we've seen a real emergence of Ki as a very big player for us.

"You don't want to lose a player of his quality for any length of time, but the blow is softened a bit by the fact we have both Brown and Kayal back from injury."