STOKES HIGHLIGHTS LESSONS LEARNED

Anthony Stokes believes Celtic are well equipped for the "business end" of the season.

Last Updated: 14/03/12 at 18:18 Post Comment

Stokes: Says Celtic are a better team than last year

Stokes: Says Celtic are a better team than last year

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Anthony Stokes believes Celtic are better equipped for the "business end" of the season than last year as they close in on the first part of a possible treble.

Celtic face Kilmarnock in the Scottish Communities League Cup final on Sunday after extending an unbeaten domestic run to 27 games with a 4-0 William Hill Scottish Cup quarter-final win over Dundee United.

Celtic lost the final 2-1 to Rangers last season and went on to be pipped to the title by their Old Firm rivals after losing the advantage at Inverness four games from the finishing line.

But Stokes feels his team have improved from 12 months ago - and developed a clinical edge that recently saw them win 20 domestic games on the trot.

"We are a different team this year, I think we're a better team," the Irishman said.

"We have tried to learn from last season and we're trying to push ourselves even further. We didn't get over the line last year and lost in the final of this tournament.

"We want to rectify some of the mistakes of last year."

Celtic can clinch the Clydesdale Bank Premier League at Ibrox on March 25 if both Rangers and Motherwell drop points beforehand.

But all talk of the treble has been banned at Celtic's Lennoxtown training ground and Stokes is taking Sunday's final on its own merits.

"Every trophy is important to us," the former Arsenal, Sunderland and Hibernian striker said.

"We take it as seriously as the league or the other cups. It's massive for us.

"It's the business end of the season. We've done really well so far but it could all count for nothing if we don't keep our high standards that we've set over the last few months."

Stokes has scored in Celtic's most recent two games, against Aberdeen and United, to equal his 20-goal tally from last season but he admits he has no idea if that will be enough to secure him a Hampden start.

Stokes has regularly been left out of the starting line-up in European games and big domestic occasions. The 23-year-old has not started against Rangers since his Old firm debut in October 2010, was an unused substitute in last year's final and only played the last quarter of the Scottish Cup final win over Motherwell.

"I'm not expecting to start at all - the gaffer changes it up quite a bit," he said.

"He'll be putting out a team to win. Obviously I'd like to think I'd come into the equation.

"I just don't know to be honest. I just do as well as I possibly can in games and training and I just hope I get the nod.

"It would be frustrating (not to start) but it's all about winning games.

"It's a massive game and I'm sure the gaffer will pick the strongest team possible."

Stokes showed an eye for the big occasion when he scored two in the 3-1 semi-final win over former club Falkirk.

But he said: "I just try and do the same thing in every game.

"I don't class any game differently, big games or not. As long as I'm scoring I'm happy.

"I just want to keep myself in the team. Every game is important when you're playing."

Stokes also got a double in what was arguably the pivotal game of Celtic's season, which came against Sunday's opponents.

Celtic were three goals down at half-time at Rugby Park in October, days after losing at Hearts, but Stokes scored two goals before Charlie Mulgrew's late equaliser seemingly kept them just in the hunt for the SPL title.

That proved to be the first game of their unbeaten run against Scottish opponents and the memorable nature of the game should ensure no Celtic player takes Kilmarnock lightly.

"We know every team can be dangerous in this league," Stokes said.

"I think a cup final is different, there is a lot at stake.

"Kilmarnock have played some very good football this year and obviously we know from our own encounter early on in the season that they are a very tough team. We'll have to be at our best."

Meanwhile, Stokes revealed he was following a club superstition after refusing to touch the trophy while posing for photographs.

"It's a club thing here," the Dubliner said. "I just follow what they say and get on with it.

"It probably does make it a little bit more special if you get over the line and you get to lift it at Hampden."

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