Lennon fighting to stop Rangers hat-trick

Celtic's new manager thrives on conflict but he has his work cut out to stop wily old fox Smith enjoying last hurrah
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The Independent Football

Celtic are restricted to small signs of headway, as if their progress must first be pieced together. The last four months have been a frantic collaboration of ambition, uncertainty, haste and exertion, so that the team now embark upon the season in a state of apprehension. Neil Lennon, a ferociously emphatic player, must seldom have felt so indistinct.

Pre-season games are flawed sources of judgement, but losing 4-2 on aggregate to SC Braga in the Champions' League qualifier emphasised some predicaments. The defence is ramshackle and several of the players are neurotic, since the manager has made it clear that he is seeking a goalkeeper, a centre-half and a left-back. He has already signed seven players, and could reach the end of August with 11 new arrivals.

The tentativeness of the side will be maddening, as it was this quality that so undermined the team last season. Twelve months ago, Tony Mowbray was new to the Celtic Park dugout and his subsequent misfortunes reminded us again that team building is the most precarious of all a manager's obligations. The remnants of his side and the beginnings of Lennon's are now thrust together in an unsteady alliance.

"At the Emirates Cup we played well against Lyon and Arsenal," says Joe Ledley, the midfielder signed from Cardiff. "Braga finished second in the Portuguese league but we dominated [the second leg]. We've got to move on. We've gelled, we know our strengths and weaknesses."

When Mowbray departed in March, a manager who had become diminished by the hostile nature of football in Glasgow was replaced by a caretaker who was never more animated than when entrenched. Lennon thrives in conflict, because his nature is so forthright. He restored some self-respect to the team and even survived a Scottish Cup defeat by Ross County because he responded with honesty.

The board deliberated on making his appointment permanent in the summer. A compromise was eventually cobbled together, with Lennon expected to be supported by an elder figure. Stuart Baxter, the Finland manager, agreed to take on the role of consultant, only for the Finnish FA to block the deal. Lennon, who has no wish for a mentor (he can phone Martin O'Neill and Gordon Strachan any time for advice), was left exposed. This is his first managerial role but he understands the demands on Celtic intim-ately and carries a fierce authority; he needs to be left to his own decisions.

The Champions' League defeat was discomfiting, but the timing of the qualifying rounds is treacherous. With Rangers having won the Premier League title for two consecutive seasons, the first priority for Celtic is establishing themselves as Scotland's dominant side. "I've come here to win titles and do well for the team," says Ledley. "It means a lot to the fans and the players. The gaffer's brought in some good players and we should be challenging to win the league."

Rangers are still restrained by the size of their debt, and six players have departed since the end of last season. A small squad is augmented by young players coming through, but the sense is of a team with a terribly delicate balance. The first-choice XI is strong and capable, but injuries or suspensions would leave Walter Smith vulnerable.

Spirit and tenacity were the factors that allowed the Ibrox side to impose their consistency on the Premier League last season, and they remain formidable in their resolve. They start at an advantage, having developed a powerful unity. "We've been playing with a new 4-1-4-1 system and everyone seems to have adapted," says the striker Kenny Miller. "Things are coming together, signs are good."

A new manager against one entering his final season before retirement; a developing team against an established one. The season will be one of contrasts.

Club-by-club guide

Aberdeen

The signing of Paul Hartley has chased away some of the gloom that gathered around the team as last season ambled into indifference. The squad is still fragile, and assembled by enterprising use of the transfer market, but Mark McGhee will be under pressure if the campaign starts poorly.

Prediction: 6th



Celtic

A traumatic summer, with seven players signed so far, most notably Efrain Juarez and Joe Ledley, four more expected and a bloated squad which needs cutting. Neil Lennon's side have greater strength in depth than Rangers, but he has to show he can build a coherent team quickly.

Prediction: 2nd



Dundee United

Winning the Scottish Cup and finishing third in the League was the height of United's ambitions last season, and repeating that achievement is a tough challenge. The key is to retain as many influential players as possible, but also sign shrewdly. Peter Houston will be under scrutiny.

Prediction: 4th



Hamilton

The loss of James McArthur to Wigan will be keenly felt, but Billy Reid has proved irrepressibly canny in replenishing his squad. The signings of Jack Ross, Gary McDonald and Jim McAlister augur well.

Prediction: 9th



Hearts

Jim Jefferies' return should ensure that Hearts are fiercely competitive, and if Kevin Kyle can maintain his fitness then last season's lack of goals should be overcome. Prominence should be restored.

Prediction: 3rd



Hibernian

Well-served with individual talents, particularly Anthony Stokes, Derek Riordan and Liam Miller, but too often erratic. John Hughes, the manager, has to prove that he can establish and maintain progress.

Prediction: 5th

Inverness Caledonian Thistle

The momentum of winning promotion from the First Division should bring an initial impetus, and at home they will be resolute. Terry Butcher has combined battle-hardened figures with promising signings such as Gil Blumstein and Jonny Tuffey.

Prediction: 10th



Kilmarnock

A new manager in Mixu Paatelainen, but a club still on the verge of distress about their finances. The Portuguese winger David Silva is an intriguing arrival, but it already looks like a challenging season.

Prediction: 11th



Motherwell

Craig Brown and Archie Knox imposed a convincing reliability on the team which led to European football. The squad is thin, but the two venerable figures will maintain the side's dependable nature.

Prediction: 6th



Rangers

The loss of Kris Boyd, in particular, and Kevin Thomson (both to Gordon Strachan's Middlesbrough) further weakens a brittle squad, but the sense of spirit and unity that served the champions so well last season will remain. If injuries and suspensions do not prove to be crippling, they can be consistent.

Prediction: 1st



St Johnstone

Derek McInnes is proving himself the most promising young manager in Scotland, and keeping Michael Duberry at the club for another season is important, while Jody Morris will continue to be influential.

Prediction: 8th



St Mirren

Danny Lennon led Cowdenbeath to successive promotions, and now must prove himself as a Premier League manager. He has signed several lower-division players, along with Paul McGowan on loan from Celtic, and relegation must be a concern.

Prediction: 12th

Richard Wilson

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