THE next three hours of football will be absolutely crucial for Celtic boss Neil Lennon.
That’s the verdict of Hoops legend John Hughes, the Parkhead club’s seventh-highest scorer in history with 189 goals, as he looks at tonight’s Europa League Group H match against AC Milan and the trip to Pittodrie three days later for the Premiership encounter with Aberdeen.
The club icon, now 77, has given his forthright views this week in a series of EXCLUSIVE interviews with Celtic book author Alex Gordon.
Today, he switches his attention to two games he believes will be vitally important to the team’s progress and the bid to win a historic tenth successive title.
Hughes told CQN: “For me, the big one is the match against the Dons. Those three points will be so important come the end of the season, I’m sure of that.
“Plus it would be nice to be in a strong position when we come to the turn of the year, so we must be wary of any slip-ups.
TWO OF A KIND…Callum McGregor and Scott Brown were up against it in derby.
“Losing on Saturday to Steven Gerrard’s side was not a disaster. We’re four points behind with a game in hand. It’s hardly insurmountable. I’d prefer to be in this position after 10 games played rather than with 10 games to play.
“What was alarming, of course, was the manner of the defeat. I’ve already said the performance was unacceptable and it is now time for real Celtic men to stand up to be counted.
“This evening’s Europa League match gives Neil Lennon the opportunity to work on the confidence of his players. For most of them, it will have been shredded after the woes of the weekend when they came up short and the fans have not been slow to tell them.
“As ever, some of the criticism has been over the top. The supporters are allowed their opinion, of course, but it doesn’t help the cause when they get just too personal in their observations.
“So, this is the perfect chance for some of those players who took some flak to buck up their ideas and show what playing for Celtic means to them.
“I thought Scott Brown and Callum McGregor toiled unselfishly to get their team-mates going against the Ibrox side. However, I feel we lost their impetus in the middle of the park because they were covering in other areas of the pitch.
“McGregor started brightly with his penetrating run down the left flank and he put in a good ball for Mohamed Elyounoussi who saw his close-range shot blocked by a desperate defender.
“But that was turned on its head when the opposition scored in the ninth minute. Then McGregor found himself deep in defence with Diego Laxalt under pressure while playing his first game since July. He wasn’t ready for this one.
“Likewise, the captain had to come to the aid of some of his colleagues, too. He was getting back into deep defensive positions to take passes from Shane Duffy and Stephen Welsh to try to get things moving in the general direction of the other team’s danger zone.
“There was just too much work dumped on McGregor and Brown for them to play their natural game and push the team forward in a controlled fashion.”
Hughes added: “If Leigh Griffiths is fit, I would have him leading the line against AC Milan tonight.
“Forget all the pre-season stuff, overweight after lockdown and suchlike. That was then and this is now and this is all that matters.
COMEBACK BHOY…Leigh Griffiths deserves a chance.
“Can the lad score goals? Tick. Does he have more to offer in game craft than Patryk Klilama? Tick. Does he have the experience to do a lot of work on his own? Tick.
“With the greatest will in the world, I cannot see Celtic winning the Europa League this season. Success at this level is step too far for the present squad.
“However, a good, solid performance against the team that is leading one of the hardest and most competitive leagues in Europe with a 100 per cent record after four games would be most welcome.
“Let’s see some desire, some urgency, some good old-fashioned Celtic spirit on this occasion. And let’s try to work the goalkeeper. To lose on Saturday without a solitary shot on target is more than a little disconcerting.
“We don’t need to beat AC Milan, but a solid all-round showing would be more than encouraging. And that could set us up for the trip to Pittodrie on Sunday for the midday kick-off.
“I see some folk are talking about the importance of the Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden a week on Sunday that would edge Celtic within 90 minutes of a phenomenal quadruple treble.
“All very exciting and enticing, but, please, let’s take care of these two tests first and then we will have plenty of time to look at the last-four tie against Derek McInnes’ side.
“Good showings against AC MIlan and Aberdeen in the next two outings could help shape our season.”
* DON’T miss the unbeatable match report from Celtic v AC Milan this evening – only in your champion CQN.