Neil Lennon believes today’s Betfred Cup semi-final will bring out the best in Easter Road striker Anthony Stokes as he returns to Hampden for the first time since scoring two goals which helped Hibs lift the Scottish Cup for the first time in 114 years.
The Capital club’s strikers have been struggling for goals in recent matches with Lennon revealing he’d be putting on plenty of attacking drills in training ahead of the lunch-time clash with Celtic.
But he is convinced that sight of the ground where Stokes scored twice against Rangers on his last visit in 2016 will inspire the forward.
“Anthony is playing well,” insisted Lennon. “He has started off really well this season and these are the kind of games that get his juices flowing so hopefully he can replicate that kind of form.”
Although critical of his front men – without a goal between them in Hibs’ last three matches – Lennon has warned them they’ll need to take every chance they get if they are to end Celtic’s run of 59 games unbeaten against domestic opposition and clinch a place in next month’s final against either Rangers or Motherwell.
While conceding it’s difficult to replicate training ground routines in a matchday context, he said: “We are creating a lot of good chances but we were wasteful with them last week [against Aberdeen].
“In all the games we have played this season, we have outnumbered the opposition in terms of chances created and attempts on goal, so that pleases me.
“We just need to be a bit more .. I don’t know if ruthless is the word – maybe a bit more clinical. We have to be precise rather than try to walk the ball into the net at times and certainly against a team like Celtic you are not going to get those opportunities too often.”
However, Hibs did exactly that only three weeks ago in the east end of Glasgow, having more shots at goal, more on target and more corners than Brendan Rodgers’ team as they came within 11 minutes of ending that 16-month long unbeaten run only for Hoops midfielder Callum McGregor to claim his second of the game, thus cancelling out John McGinn’s own double that day.
McGregor admitted he and his team-mates feared their record was about to go and, insisted Lennon, it will one day. And, while he’d dearly love it to be today, he was adamant his agenda is simply to make the final.
Lennon did, though, suggest such a run can bring its own anxiety to bear as Rodgers’ players try to ensure their record continues while agreeing the fact today’s match is a “one-off” which must be won on the day might just add that little bit added pressure.
Lennon said: “There will be an anxiety the longer it goes on. It will end some time. We came close but not close enough last time. But that was not my main issue then, and it’s not my main issue today. It’s about winning the game irrelevant of Celtic’s record which is obviously very impressive. They’ll have a huge amount of pride in terms of protecting it – they’ll want it to last. People will talk and talk about it and sometimes that can nag away at the back of your mind sub-conciously. You don’t want to lose it.
“But it up to the opposition to get themselves into the position we were in more of the time and see how they respond. It’s a fantastic record but I do not want to dwell on Celtic and their record. What I am looking for is a performance, to take the game to Celtic, to be brave when we can and that can win you the game.” Lennon, however, is wary of a backlash from Celtic following the runaround they were given by Bayern Munich in the Champions League on Wednesday night while hoping the exertions of that night will have exacted a toll both physically and mentally. He said: “I’ve been there and the first thing you want to do is get back out on the pitch again. Or they could be a little bit sore, there could be a bit of fatigue and, if there is, we have to take advantage of it. I’m not saying we are going to turn up and run all over them, but there will be moments in the game when we are on top and, if the chances do come, we have to take them.”
Conceding Hibs will have lost any element of surprise given their performance at Celtic Park so recently, Lennon believes his players will have drawn confidence from that day while acknowledging they still face the stiffest of hurdles.
He said: “No-one has given us much of a thought. I think we raised a few eyebrows the other week but we have to consider that realistically this is a competition we can win, the Scottish Cup is another, the Premiership is probably beyond us. We are in it to win it. We are down to the last four. If you are going to win it you have to beat everyone who is put in front of you, Celtic are the next hurdle.
“We know what we are coming up against, it’s a semi-final. No-one remembers the semi-finalists. We don’t want to be sitting watching the final thinking ‘that could have been us’.”