Lennon hopes Celtic's title challengers come back in one piece

Celtic manager Neil Lennon is concerned this week's internationals could derail his side's challenge for the Scottish Premier League. Lennon, named SPL manager of the month for January earlier this week, is eager for his cosmopolitan squad to return to Glasgow injury-free and protect their five-point lead over Rangers in this weekend's match with Dundee United.

"I'm a wee bit tense this week, just hoping they all come back in decent shape," Lennon said yesterday. "Some of the players want to go, which is fine, I wouldn't stand in their way. It's just the timing and the fact they're not qualifying games either." Lennon had players in both camps for the Scotland v Northern Ireland Nations Cup match in Dublin last night. "I wouldn't like to think they'll be kicking each other," he added.

One player who has become a key Scotland performer is Scott Brown. The Celtic captain was overlooked for the Scotland job, with the national manager, Craig Levein, opting for Kenny Miller to lead the side last night, but Lennon believes the 25-year-old is an international captain in waiting.

"He's a Scotland captain in the making, that's for sure," Lennon said. "He's a big-game player and he doesn't get intimidated very often. His performances of late have been what we know he is capable of."

Lennon is more than happy for Brown to continue hitting Rangers' new signing El Hadji Diouf with verbal barbs, as a war of words develops between the pair.

On Monday, Diouf accused Brown of trying to get him sent off during Sunday's Scottish Cup fifth-round draw, before yesterday claiming Lennon had goaded him in the tunnel at Ibrox. Brown yesterday hit back and Lennon is happy for his captain to do the talking.

"I'll leave Scott to sort that out because he seems to be coping with it very well," Lennon said. "Scott's handled the situation brilliantly and with a bit of humour."

Lennon is unfazed by recent death threats and insists the events will not distract him from managing Celtic.

"It's worth it, there's no doubt about it," said Lennon, who ended his Northern Ireland playing career in 2002 after receiving threats. "There are things which go on that are outwith my control, that's when I take advice from our security people. But it wasn't hard to focus on the Rangers game."