Neil Lennon says Celtic are the team in the ascendancy heading into Wednesday’s vital Old Firm showdown after they cut Rangers’ lead at the top of the Scottish Premier League to just one point.
A double from Georgios Samaras proved enough for Celtic to run out 2-1 winners against Kilmarnock — substitute Danny Racchi struck a late consolation — as the Hoops took full advantage of nine-man Rangers’ 2-1 loss to St Mirren.
The win was Celtic’s eighth in a row and the Parkhead side have been boosted by the news Rangers pair Lee McCulloch and Dorin Goian, both sent off against St Mirren, will miss Wednesday’s meeting between the Glasgow rivals at Parkhead.
Celtic manager Lennon agreed that his side would be favorites as the Hoops host Ally McCoist’s men looking to leapfrog their rivals and start the year on top of the table.
“We’ve won eight in a row, so the form is good going into the game, but we will have to play well, and we will have to play strongly and play to the occasion as best we can,” Lennon said. “Regardless of who we were going to face on Wednesday, it’s the next most important game, as the next game after that will be. We just want to continue our winning form and if it means having to beat Rangers, then so be it.”
The last time the Hoops faced Kilmarnock questions were raised about Lennon’s future as manager after a 3-3 draw allowed Rangers to open up a 12-point lead at the top of the table.
However, a slump in form from the ’Gers has coincided with an upturn in fortunes for Lennon’s side and the Northern Irishman said his players had shown a strong mentality during their recent run.
“It is a reward for the players. They have shown some great character under a lot of pressure and have played some superb football in that period of time,” he said. “They have produced big goals in big moments in games when any slip-up could have cost us. Over the piece, they have won the games and the mentality has been good. The personalities have started to come out on the pitch as well. I’m pleased the players are playing to their full capabilities now. They are all playing more or less to the top of their game and, hence, why we are going so well, but it can change again in one weekend of football. So without getting complacent, there are things in the game today that didn’t please me and we know we can play better.”
Rangers slumped to a 2-1 defeat in Paisley despite taking an 11th-minute lead through Lee Wallace.
McCulloch saw red for an elbow on Graham Carey, before goals from Aaron Mooy and Paul McGowan gave St Mirren the lead before the break.
Rangers dominated possession in the second half as they looked for an elusive equalizer, but things got worse for the Ibrox outfit when Goian saw red for two bookable offenses.
McCoist said that there is a “distinct possibility” that Rangers will look into appealing McCulloch’s “extremely harsh” red, adding that his team would be ready for Wednesday’s trip across Glasgow.
“It was never going to be anything other than hard in the derby,” McCoist said. “We always knew it would be tough. All we can do now is dust ourselves down, and we will do.”
It was only Rangers’ second defeat of the season, but Lennon said Celtic will have to be on top form to beat their rivals, who defeated his side 4-2 at Ibrox earlier in the season.