CELTIC’S vice has been turned into a virtue. Ever since Neil Lennon’s side shipped in three goals before half-time at Kilmarnock in October, they have demonstrated it was all too premature then to write off their season and their manager.
Condemning the club’s defence at that time as dead loss remains entirely forgiveable. The transformation in the subsequent four months has, however, been truly jaw-dropping.
The club record of 20 consecutive domestic wins that has been set by Lennon’s side after edging out a stoic Motherwell at the weekend has been built on clean sheets, with a remarkable 15 of them coming in that unbeaten sequence. In centre-back Thomas Rogne, who significantly didn’t make his first senior outing of the season till after the 3-3 draw at Rugby Park, they have a clean sheet specialist, the opposition having failed to score in 21 of the 32 starts he has made for the club.
For a player of fragile fitness, he doesn’t mind taking the hits on the field. The 22-year-old also has great awareness and anticipation, as well being unfussily effective in the air. He has all the makings of being the club’s best centre-back in 30 years, albeit there is not really a long list of good ones to choose from.
Third-placed Motherwell came to Celtic Park on the back of scoring seven goals in their previous two games, yet the hulking Michael Higdon barely won a header or a challenge with Rogne. Equally, the Norwegian, ably assisted by Kelvin Wilson, yielded nothing to the quicksilver Henrik Ojamaa, whose directness and willingness to commit and work defences has allowed Motherwell to contemplate challenging Rangers for second place.
While the Ibrox side pulled six points clear in that particular tussle with their win at Inverness yesterday, the remain a massive 20 points behind Celtic. With 19 clean-sheets in the league and nine games remaining, Lennon’s side must be odd-ons to eclipse the 23-game SPL shut-out record they set last season
Celtic were faced with a defence that has impressed almost as much as their own, but the visitors’ backline let themselves down an hour in, allowing Georgios Samaras to adroitly chest a long throw-in from Adam Matthews into the path of Gary Hooper, who despatched a low effort into the net from six yards. Motherwell manager Stuart McCall was pleased to have avoided a repeat of the recent heavy losses in Glasgow, but his talk of going toe-to-toe with Celtic was rather wide of the mark – although his team could not be faulted for trying.
They set out with the aim of making it difficult for the home side to score, and executed that game plan well. Yet, the fact that there is now an element of damage limitation in the minds of whoever a rampant Celtic face, as well as the forgone nature of the championship, is contributing to a weariness in both the play of Lennon’s side, and their crowd, whose partying over their bitter rivals’ demise didn’t quite contain the same gusto.
The mental and physical fatigue Lennon himself alluded to afterwards is hardly likely to be eased by the international commitments of a whole team of his players. Indeed, in the case of Ki Sung-Yeung, who will return to his native South Korea for a World Cup qualifier with Kuwait on Wednesday, representing his country means he won’t even be back in time for Celtic’s assignment at Pittodrie on Saturday at noon as he’s not flying back until two days later.
Ki ended up in hospital when back playing for his country earlier this season, a problem he doesn’t rule out being related to regularly jetting halfway across the world and back in the space of a week. He only started on Saturday because of a groin injury that ruled out captain Scott Brown and which makes him a major doubt for Scotland’s trip to Slovenia
“There are so many players in the middle at our club, so I am not concerned about playing, I just want to help as much as I can,” said the 23-year-old South Korean. “It is not easy to travel back to my country. It is a great honour and everyone is proud to play for their country but it is very tiring and it is very hard. But it is my decision. I come from Asia and I have to go to Europe to learn, but even though I am young I get tired. I have to overcome things. This season I have played a lot of games. I have experienced a lot of games in Europe and in the SPL but I want to finish with three trophies. The chances to win league, League Cup and FA Cup do not normally come along. It is going to be very interesting and could be amazing because it hasn’t happened much in history.”
Celtic could make all sorts of history if they continue at their current relentless pace. So too could Motherwell if their next seven games yield the five wins and one draw of their previous seven. As long as they cling to third place, they seem certain to claim the second Champions League slot that comes with it as it seems inconceivable that Rangers will have the necessary audit accounts to apply for a Uefa licence by the 31 March deadline.
If they can reproduce the sort of form that makes them a genuine threat to Rangers for second place and win their Scottish Cup quarter-final at home to Aberdeen in a fortnight, the season could yet be pretty historic for Motherwell. Especially so for their accountants, with the difference in prize money between finishing in second or third place standing at approximately £1m.
“We’re not looking too much at second place at the moment, although it is in the back of your head every now and again, said the club’s central defender Shaun Hutchison. “If it was to happen it would be unbelievable, but at the moment finishing third is all we are aiming for.
“It’s good for our confidence knowing that we have matched Celtic from start to finish. It’s good for our next game and also when it comes to playing them again. It’s building up as such a good season. When things are going so well, training’s livelier and it’s a happier place to be. When that’s the case, performances on the park take care of themselves.
“The Scottish Cup final last year was probably the biggest day of my life. If we can win the quarter-final we’re in the semi, and after that who knows?”