On the face of it this looks like a good season for Celtic. Top of the league at the winter break, European football after the new year (something that should never be underestimated) and the League Cup in the bag giving us the first part of what we all hope will be a treble-treble.
And yet I defy anyone to tell me Celtic have had a ‘good’ season. To be ahead just on goal difference from a mediocre Rangers team (admittedly with a game in hand) is poor form. To look at bare statistics, in the full calendar year of 2018, Celtic played 36 league games. They won 22, drew 7 and lost 7. Let’s be clear, we should be looking for far better form in 2019.
I have a formula I look to each season regarding our league title challenge. From 38 league games Celtic should be aiming for a minimum, to win 30, draw 4 and lose 4. That gives you 94 points which in most seasons should win you the league. At the moment, with just 20 games played, we have already drawn 3 and lost 4. A Celtic team in decent form should all but have the title sewn up by now.
The attitude of the club and the supporters during the summer concerned me greatly. The supporters became cocky and the club became complacent which is not a good formula. Way back in the summer I made the point that we would only have to have a slight dip in form (we have) and Rangers enjoy a slight improvement (they have) and we would then be bang in the middle of a scrap for the title which we could so easily have avoided. And so it has materialised. Celtic made absolutely no attempt to replace three players of true quality – Dembele, Armstrong and Roberts – and we have paid the price. It is to be hoped that recruitment during the January window will remedy this.
It’s not an excuse to say it but injuries have been a killer. I can’t recall a season where we have suffered so many injuries, so much so it seems like a curse, Benkovic being the latest at Ibrox. As well as new signings another wish must be that Brendan can have the luxury of a full squad (or as near as) until the end of the season. The recent Ibrox game was a real eye opener. Up until then Celtic had not failed to turn up for the big domestic games under the manager in the previous three seasons. There can be no more disasters like that. It wasn’t the fact we lost at Ibrox which hurt, it was the manner of the defeat and the lack of fight on the day.
In terms of team selection, Boyata must not be allowed to leave in the window. If that means he leaves for nothing in the summer then so be it. The Celtic board like to cash in on their assets but they had better realise that with eight in a row on the horizon (and the CL qualifying place that goes with it) then it would be sheer folly to risk that, no matter what offer they receive for Boyata. We must retain our better players in this window.
Scott Brown has been truly exceptional under Brendan Rodgers but the manager blundered by bringing back Broony so soon after injury. During his absence the midfield of McGregor/Christie/Rogic was on fire. Christie has been the one shining light this season, a real find and the only problem is that he wasn’t introduced earlier as many of us saw him as the natural heir to Armstrong. One thing is for certain, Callum McGregor has matured into a wonderful player and should be given the holding midfield role, even if it means leaving out the captain. McGregor’s absence from the midfield at Ibrox was the main reason for such an insipid performance. Brendan Rodgers is not immune from criticism and has to realise that there can be no more wholesale changes and playing of fringe players. They are clearly not good enough and hopefully there will be a clear out, if not in January, but the summer. We cannot underestimate teams anymore and the strongest side must be played in all games herein.
The arrivals of Oliver Burke, Timothy Weah and Vakoun Bayo are to be welcomed and it is hoped that others will follow before the window shuts. It should be noted that Celtic’s financial dominance over Rangers may not last forever. Another season without Champions League football and that £30m windfall in the club accounts will begin to dwindle and if that happens then the board will then look to sell our major assets. Peter Lawwell in particular should not under estimate the mood of the Celtic support. Failure to win the title this season, whilst enjoying such a massive current financial advantage, will be unforgivable and if that does happens then time will be up for the bold Peter.
There has been a lot of talk about John Beaton’s performance at Ibrox which only serves to hide the fact that Willie Collum was so damned awful at Pittodrie three days earlier. Much was made of the Aberdeen penalty late in the game but that in itself only disguise the fact that the first penalty (against Izaguirre) was a horrendous decision. Celtic’s critics may point to paranoia amongst the fans but it’s worthwhile reminding those people of the Jim Farry, Dougie McDonald and Hugh Dallas affairs. No other club has faced anything remotely like that at any time in Scottish football and only serves to remind us what we are up against.
Celtic have no divine right to win any league title and we should never expect to. However, with the quality in our squad, we should be confident that if we can play the way we can play then, as we showed at Pittodrie, we can overcome the barriers put up against us. And there will be a great many tests before the season’s end, not just from our opponents but also from the officials.
Let’s hit the ground running after the break. Come on ye Celts.