Hearts’ early surge to the top of the table brought hope to neutrals that there would be actually be a league race in Scotland this season involving a team outside Glasgow’s big two. The two beatings Celtic dished out a month back where described as the defeats which ‘broke Hearts’ but the truth is that it was the Ibrox defeat a few weeks earlier which truly damaged them. A win that day would have saw Hearts go 11 points in front of Rangers but it wasn’t to be for Craig Levein’s side and Rangers win then saw them emerge as the real challengers for Celtic’s crown.
There is a certain sympathy for Hearts in some quarters as they have lost what probably amounts to their four best players through injury – Berra, Souttar, Naismith and Ikpeazu – and they cannot hope to cope with this given their small squad. At one stage Hibs looked as if they may also make a challenge but Neil Lennon faces a problem with continuity. Last season the midfield trio of McGinn, McGeough and Allan were highly impressive but transfers and injury has decimated that area of their side and they have suffered accordingly.
As the dust settles around the SPFL, the clear light of day shows that it is definitely down to a two horse race for the title. Should Rangers win at Tynecastle on Saturday (and they will) then they will go top of the table by a point, by courtesy of Celtic playing Aberdeen on Sunday in the League Cup final. There are two ways of looking at this particular situation:
- Rangers must be annoyed that given Celtic’s dreadful form for the first two months of the season that they are not further in front.
- Had Celtic not endured their away form aberrations during that early season period then there would be no league race and it would be a case of game over. They would have been easily out of sight by now.
Make no mistake it will now be a two horse race. I said at the start the start of the season that all that was needed for that to happen was for Rangers to improve slightly (they have) and for Celtic to regress (we never remotely replaced the quality of Dembele, Armstrong and Roberts in the squad). Add that to the Scottish media are desperate for close competition and a Rangers side who may actually be gathering a bit of momentum. Then there is the point that referees will be a main factor. If you don’t agree then look at some of the odd decisions lately together with the number of soft penalties Rangers have been enjoying. This is just the start of it.
As January rapidly approaches it is important that Celtic hold their nerve. With Boyata’s contract up in the summer he has the opportunity to walk away for free at the end of June. The temptation for the Celtic board would always be to look to cash in and move him on for a nominal fee of around £2m. This must not be allowed to happen. Boyata, who is in the best form of his career, has to be kept until the end of the season even if it means losing him for no fee. The thought of 8-in-a-row and a possible Champions League place should be paramount and far outweigh any temptation to sell. Celtic simply cannot afford to take any chances this season.
With a bit of luck Leicester will also allow Filip Benkovic to stay until the end of the season. The big man looks like another Virgil Van Dijk in the making. However, that means we can forget about any remote possibilities of signing him permanently, sad as that may be.
The real issue in January should be moving the dead wood on, which we actually have quite a lot of. De Vries, Gamboa, Biton, Compper, Allan, Kouassi, Hayes and Benyu all contribute very little but combine together to take a massive amount in wages. None of them would be missed although fate can be a funny thing. Six weeks ago Ryan Christie would have been included on that list. Given Christie’s subsequent excellent form and emergence from the shadows, it begs the question whether others could do similar if they were given the opportunity to do so?
The early away league form was galling – Tynecastle 0-1, Paisley 0-0, Rugby Park 1-2 – this is not the form of champions and similar mishaps have to be avoided. It does have to be said that injuries have been devastating. Kouassi and Arzani are sadly out for the rest of the season and Boyata, Benkovic, Ajer, Simunevic , Biton, Rogic, Griffiths, Sinclair, Brown and Morgan have all been out for varying periods of time. Even Dembele was reportedly injured before his departure in August. It all seemed like a curse at one point.
December now shapes up to be an important month. In the next few days we have defining matches against Rosenborg in Norway and Aberdeen at Hampden. Let’s hope we have truly turned the corner and that the Celts are fully motivated and up for the challenges which lie ahead.