NEIL LENNON acknowledges he must stop the rot against Steven Gerrard’s side – or face the consequences.
The Celtic manager is under no illusions of the importance of this afternoon’s Premiership encounter at Ibrox.
His former team-mate Chris Sutton has already stated firmly it is win-or-bust for the champions who are striving to seal their tenth successive championship, as CQN reported earlier today.
This league campaign has been one giant banana skin with a defeat from the Govan outfit in October and stalemates against Kilmarnock, Aberdeen, Hibs and St Johnstone.
In truth, that is not flag-winning form. But the Hoops will make a massive statement if they can succeed at Ibrox against a team that has outplayed them on their past three meetings, a sad and sorry situation which is accepted by Lennon.
It took a monumental performance from Fraser Forster – including a penalty-kick save – and a goal from Christopher Jullien to give the Parkhead men the Betfred League Cup in December 2019.
Two Premiership defeats followed in the east end of Glasgow, an error-strewn performance last season when Ryan Christie squandered a spot-kick at 0-0 and centre-back Nikola Katic was allowed a free header from a corner-kick to claim the winner.
The derby in October is best forgotten, a tame performance from the home side without a single shot on Allan McGregor’s goal while Connor Goldson was also given the freedom of the city to score a double.
Celtic go into the latest head-to-head against Gerrard’s side trailing by 16 points with three games in hand.
The pressure is on the team – and the manager – to produce the goods now the chips are down.
Four league victories in succession against Kilmarnock (2-0), Ross County (2-0), Hamilton Accies (3-0) and Dundee United (3-0) have given Lennon some breathing space, but he is aware Peter Lawwell and the board will review his position early in the new year.
The Irishman has pondered long and hard over his crucial team formation for this afternoon’s confrontation which will undoubtedly go a long way to determining his own fate as well as that of the team’s bid for the 52nd flag in their glorious history.
Looking at today’s opponents, Lennon, speaking to the Daily Record, admitted: “Their system is good and they’re well drilled in it, so it is something we need to think about.
“We went 4-3-3 in the previous two games and we weren’t very good. Then we went to three at the back for the last one, but the personnel wasn’t great as we didn’t have the quality that we would have liked.
“So, it’s something we’ll have to think about, no question.”
Accepting this will be another gigantic challenge, Lennon said: “They are always important, but with the position we find ourselves in, it’s important we don’t lose the game.
“We’re playing well, we’ve found a bit of form and consistency at the right time, so it’s important we take that into the game against a team that has started the season absolutely brilliantly.
“But it’s not beyond us at all. I think we go into the game in a positive frame of mind and take the game to Rangers as much as we possibly can.”
The Hoops gaffer admitted his team has failed to perform in the previous three derbies and said: “Yeah, well, I wouldn’t disagree with that so that’s something we need to look at and rectify. I think we owe a performance to ourselves – we need to play better, be stronger and by physically better.
“Look, there were mitigating circumstances for the last one. We had a lot of players out with Covid and injury and we were a bit flat.
“But in the previous two games, Rangers were the better team here at Celtic Park and also at Hampden in the Betfred Cup Final even though we prevailed at the end.
“So, it’s important we put in a performance. Having said that, if we play crap and win I’ll still be delighted, but I would like to get the best of both worlds.”
Lennon added: “Psychologically, it would give us a huge lift, so that’s all in our thinking going into this game. But while we are positive we’re not saying we have turned a massive corner.
“If we could get a result at Ibrox then you could say we are on the right track again. But, while there was aspects of our last game against Dundee United which pleased me, there were some other aspects that didn’t please me.
“But we’re scoring goals and creating a lot of good chances and starting to look far more like ourselves.
“You can’t take anything for granted in a derby – it’s about what happens on the day – so we’ve got to make sure it’s our day and we’re ready for it. We seem to be in a good place, the players look fresh again all of a sudden and that might be psychological more than anything else.
“There’s no element of fatigue and they’re not looking heavy-legged, so I think mentally we’re okay at the minute, but that can all flip in 90 minutes.”
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