The season resumes on Saturday with a visit to Firhill in the Scottish Cup. However, it is the resumption of the league campaign which holds the main interest for most Celtic fans. At the moment we have a slender lead, although Rangers have a vital game in hand which will put then top, should they win it as is expected.
Last year saw both teams level at this stage with Celtic having the game in hand. The Celts then came out the traps after the winter break with a sense of purpose (winning eleven games and drawing one out of twelve) even allowing for the fact that Rodgers abdicated in February and put a spanner in the works in doing so, with Neil Lennon then required to come in and steady the ship. That was a vital run of form and was the springboard towards Celtic claiming yet another title.
Only a similar run of form at the very least will do this time around as we fight it out with the media darlings from Ibrox for a possible nine a row. For the last 18 months I have had great concern over the closing gap between Celtic and Rangers and I have catalogued those concerns on this site previously. Celtic went from the invincible season in 2017 then started to haemorrhage quality players. Dembele, Roberts, Armstrong, Tierney and Boyata have all gone to be replaced with new faces, some of whom can be described as questionable. The exceptions to this are Edouard and Julienn which goes to prove to the Celtic board that you can actually replace quality with quality should you make the effort to do so and pay the money.
Whilst Celtic have regressed, there has to be a grudging admission that Rangers have improved considerably. They are not a spectacular team by any stretch but Gerrard has developed a system which makes them difficult to beat. This is borne out by the improved domestic form and reaching the last 32 in the Europa League from a difficult group. They have a strong defensive set up and a regular goal scorer which is always a decent recipe for any side. Let’s not kid ourselves here, they have moved up as we have moved down and we are now meeting in the middle.
The Rangers board have gone for bust this season in the hope that they can stop Celtic’s dream of the nine (and ultimately the ten) and take their chances on Champions League qualification to get to the promised land of the CL financial windfall available in the group stages. If this was to be achieved then their debts would be wiped out overnight and put them on an even keel financially, fully justifying their financial gamble. This being the case then Dave King’s financial poker game would be vindicated and he will be hailed as a hero by all in the Scottish media. Meanwhile, our glorious leaders inside Parkhead are sitting on a massive fortune and have under estimated the Rangers challenge. There is a possibility that we will be the first team to lose a league title, having in excess of £40m in the coffers. How extremely foolish the board will look should that happen and they will not be easily forgiven should that situation develop.
The recent signing of Patryk Klimala is welcomed but it is doubtful if he will make much of an impact unless Neil Lennon alters his team formation. If he sticks to playing Edouard as the lone striker then Klimala’s opportunities will be few. However, if he changes things slightly we could have the new Pole through the middle with Edouard supporting from the left, a position which he seems to prefer. Don’t look for any major in coming transfers. The best we will get is one, possibly two loan signings, probably from down south, with a view to them making a short term impression, a la Craig Bellamy or Robbie Keane, to allow the club to do their main transfer business in the summer. On the positive side, the board cannot possibly countenance any major player sales, not even if silly money comes in for Edouard, whilst the league race is so close.
There are a number of players who also now need to step up to the mark and make a contribution. It’s been desperately frustrating not having Simunovic, Rogic and Griffiths for very available for considerable periods. If we can get that trio fit and back into top form then they could be alike to new signings. It’s payback time and the hope is they will now stand up and be counted.
Neil Lennon also has big decisions to make. The 4-2-3-1 formation has suited us well since Rodgers and Neil has continued with it with some success. However, the recent Derby games have indicated that Rangers now have the measure of that formation tactically. The final two fixtures against them will arguably settle the title race. Neil should be looking at changing the line up as we cannot tolerate any more failing performances such as the two last December, even allowing for the fact we won the League Cup against all the odds.
The next five months will go a long way to shaping the future. For Celtic it will hopefully be all out glory and joy of another nine in a row to emulate Jock Stein’s great sides of 1966-1974. Allowing Rangers to grasp the initiative from us is just not worth contemplating. Every game will be hard fought and every goal will be vital as the season progresses. This league season will be long remembered as being hugely significant, one way or another.
Let’s just hope the Celts are up to the challenge.