Neil Lennon is never going to go quietly, and he demands the same of his players – that they go out with a bang rather than a whimper.
In his own brand of “Project Brave” the Hibs boss, while well aware of the threat posed by his old club, was never going to head to Celtic Park with simply a damage limitation plan in place.
No, it would be done head-to-head, Lennon’s intentions clear from the start with Florian Kamberi and Martin Boyle charged with taking the game to a Celtic side which is gradually finding the swagger of the past two seasons.
But while both Kamberi and Boyle got themselves a goal, Lennon was left bemoaning what, for the first half hour, was an uncharacteristically tentative performance from his players who, at one point, looked like they were defeated before this match had even reached half-time.
Odsonne Edouard and Callum McGregor had both hit the woodwork before Tom Rogic and Olivier Ntcham scored as Celtic were allowed to pass the ball at will, creating alarming gaps in a new-look three-man defence, Scott Sinclair underlining the home side’s dominance as he, too, struck a shot against the post when it looked easier to score.
Lennon admitted it could have been much worse come half-time, although there had been a few glimmers of hope for Hibs, particularly after they switched to a more conventional 4-4-2 formation with a diamond midfield, Boyle forcing a tremendous save from Celtic goalkeeper Craig Gordon.
“I had to tell them a few home truths at half-time,” revealed Lennon. “We hadn’t done what we planned to do. We were too passive in our play. Their first goal was a good individual goal but we were the architects of our own downfall for the second, you can’t go passing the ball across the back when you are getting pressed.
“But I got the response I wanted in the second half.”
A terrific strike from Kamberi hauled Hibs back into the match, only for Edouard to restore Celtic’s two-goal cushion, Lennon left to berate experienced Aussie internationalist Mark Milligan for failing to take out James Forrest as he set off on the run which created the opening.
Boyle’s cute finish again gave Hibs hope, but with just three minutes remaining, Edouard got his second to settle a match which had shades of last season’s Betfred Cup semi-final between the two teams about it, Celtic always having the upper hand but not entirely comfortable until the final whistle had gone.
Lennon said: “I gambled going with two strikers. I wanted to get on the front foot and expose them and we exposed them a lot. We should have been a bit more clinical in the final third especially in the first half.
“We worked the ball into good areas but we lacked a little bit of self belief. But we grew into the game, there were some good performances and in the second half they looked like the players we know they can be.”
The damage, though, was done in those opening 19 minutes as Boyle admitted, saying: “You cannot gift them two goals like that. Their first was a cracking goal but the way we played first half was unacceptable.
“We had chances, Craig Gordon has brought off an unbelievable save from me. We changed the formation and came out second half at it and looking a bit hungrier.
“It was good to get on the scoresheet but we let ourselves and the gaffer down in the first half. However, not many teams will go to Celtic Park and score two goals, so there are positives.”
Celtic boss Brendan Rodgers described the match as “a wonderful, attacking performance” from his side while revealing he’d almost enjoyed the game of cat and mouse played between himself and Lennon as they tinkered with their respective teams and formations.
He said: “It was always going to be a fantastic game of football between two teams that want to win. You have to give Hibs some credit, they are a good side and Neil Lennon has done a fantastic job there.
“Neil and I have the same philosophy, to impose yourself on the game and if you can do that then you have a great chance of winning. You are always going to have to concentrate because they have the ability to score goals but our real quality shone through.”
But Lennon also pointed out: “They have a £9 million player [Edouard], while our squad cost a fraction of that, so sometimes quality counts.”