TO READ some pundits, it appeared that Celtic’s season finished on Tuesday night with the sound beating by AC Milan which put the Parkhead club out of Europe.
It was a hugely significant reverse, but there’s a Double remaining to be won, and as they prepare to face Hearts in tomorrow’s fourth round match, no-one at Celtic is being complacent.
There’s a long way to go in the SPFL Premiership, though Celtic remain unbeaten and clear at the top. All of a sudden the William Hill Scottish Cup, the only other competition in which Celtic are involved, takes on a new importance.
Central defender Efe Ambrose admitted that was the case when he spoke to the press yesterday. “In football things happen,” said Ambrose. “You lose, you win, you draw, but we gave everything we can and we lost 3-0. But now it is behind us, it is in the past so we will let it go and we will look forward to the next game which is the cup on Sunday.
“For us, we just need to focus on this game because we know that any distraction and we’ll be out of the cup. So we don’t want anything to distract us at this point in time, we just need to focus on bouncing back after AC Milan and get back on a winning streak, as we’ve been doing in the league.”
The Nigerian international is wary of tomorrow’s opponents. Even with all that has happened to them, Hearts at Tynecastle is no-one’s idea of an easy ride, and while he is aware of their off-field troubles, Ambrose anticipates a battle.
He said: “It’s football and you can never write them off because every time they play against Celtic they play good football. I believe it will be a tough game, but we’ll go there with a determination to win and get a victory and give back a smile to the Celtic fans after the disappointment of AC Milan. Winning this game will bring back a little bit of joy to the fans.
If Celtic were to lose to Hearts or at any subsequent stage, would that render their season a failure?
“I don’t think so,” said Ambrose, “because we still have something going on in the league. We’re determined to carry on until the end. We have a winning mentality to carry on from now until the end of the season in the cup and in the league. I believe we have the players to do it and we can do it.
“The cup is important. Every game we play is important, but the cup and the league is what we have now and we’re going to grab them with both hands and we’ll not let them go.”
Ambrose had a different take on the Champions League campaign from most people: “For me it was a good campaign. We may not have won but we played well and created chances, but we could not convert most of those. Every other thing in this campaign was good.
“I think we played better than last year because last year we didn’t create many chances. but we converted the ones we had, but this year we had so many chances but we could not. And that was the big difference.”
So starting tomorrow, Ambrose and his colleagues want to get back to winning: “We’ll keep playing the way we’re playing because the manager keeps telling us that winning is not easy and that’s true. Winning is difficult because everyone expects us to win. Winning is not easy because every team wants to beat Celtic and that makes it more difficult for us.
“Inverness, Aberdeen, Dundee United are coming up now and there is a good challenge in the Scottish league now. But if you’re in a good team you can win and I believe we’re a good team.”
His manager, Neil Lennon, speaking after he revealed that Israeli midfielder Beram Kayal will be out for six or seven weeks with a broken bone in his foot, had the last word: “There is always pressure on the team now anyway. There was pressure on us to win the double last season even after we reached the last 16 of the Champions League. That won’t change, although maybe there’s extra pressure on us now because we’re out of Europe.”
Hearts midfielder Ryan Stevenson also says he does not expect Celtic to wilt after their Champions League exit.
He said: “Celtic always come to Tynecastle as favourites – like they do going anywhere. They are the best team in the country. After Tuesday, I’m sure they will be disappointed with the outcome. But they will probably look at Tynecastle as the best place to go outside of Parkhead because the Old Firm games are not there any more. They will be up for it and want to bounce back. Cup games are always special at Tynecastle.
“Yeah the pressure will be on them. But their players are used to that. They played AC Milan in midweek and the pressure was on them then too. Coming here will be no different. But we can win this. We played them earlier in the season here and had chances to win it. On another day it could have happened.”
Celtic had notconceded from a corner for almost two years before allowing both Kaka and Cristian Zapata to do just that on Tuesday night. But Stevenson says Lennon will make sure there are no more soft openings for Hearts to exploit. He said: “They will be disappointed the way things panned out against Milan but make no mistakes about it, they have the best players in the country and they will come here looking for a massive response.”