THE league is in the bag and both cups are long gone. Such a scenario might encourage many players to switch off, but for the Celtic squad there is one obvious motivation to keep going: the preservation of their unbeaten record in the Premiership.
Actually, make that two motivations, as tonight they meet Aberdeen, who beat them just a couple of weeks ago in the Scottish Cup. Revenge would be too strong a word for the emotion that will drive Celtic on at Pittodrie, but they will at least want to reassert their domestic dominance.
“There is a freshness with the cup game being so recent,” Neil Lennon said yesterday. “We didn’t play well on the day and we get an early chance to rectify that.
“Aberdeen are second, we are away from home and they are the only team to score against us in the last couple of months – and the only team to beat us as well,” the manager continued. “There is a bit of steel about them this year that has been missing for the last few years and there is a good blend.
“Barry Robson and Willo Flood give them good experience, Peter Pawlett has good legs, and the back four and goalkeeper have seen a big improvement.
“The clean sheet and unbeaten record can go at any time, and this is the biggest test we may get. It’s a really good game to get our teeth into.”
Leigh Griffiths was only a second-half substitute in the second half of the cup tie, but after a fine first goal for his new club at Tynecastle on Saturday looks likely to start tonight – provided, that is, his calf gives no further concern. “There is a bit of fatigue in the calf and there’s a worry it might be a slight strain,” Lennon explained. “He is feeling okay today.
“He scored a great goal, a typical Griffiths goal [against Hearts]. He’s a bit like Kris Commons – very little backlift but hits it with immense power. It was a great way to get up and running here and I think it was a relief for him as well.
“Like every striker, it always weighs on their mind but he knows the club and the environment. Sometimes they come in from a different culture and don’t really get it straight away. He got it straight away and you can see what it meant for him to score. We have high hopes for him.”
James Forrest and Emilio Izaguirre are back in the squad after injury, but Stefan Johansen is likely to miss out because of a knock. Amido Balde and Teemu Pukki are set to keep their places among the substitutes, having come off the bench at the weekend and combined to score the second goal against Hearts. Neither player has been overly impressive since coming to Glasgow, but Lennon wants to give them a chance to impress over the coming weeks.
“We know they’ve got the talent, but whether they’ve found it difficult to adapt to the pace of the game or the expectations of the club, the stalwarts of the team have been really good with them and guided them along.
“There was plenty interest in both of them but we wanted to keep them here,” Lennon added when asked if there had been an opportunity to send them out on loan last month. “They will play more of a part between now and the end of the season.”
Provided Griffiths and Anthony Stokes keep up their current form, Pukki and Balde will surely be restricted to some extra substitutes’ appearances, at least for as long as the unbeaten run lasts. And Stokes himself insisted the players had no intention of letting it end.
“I think at a club like this, and with the expectation of the fans, we’re under pressure to win every game,” the striker said. “You can’t really afford to take your foot off the gas. I also think with individual players, too, that if you’re not performing you’re not going to be in the team. We’ve a lot of competition for places at the minute, so I’m certain everyone’s focused on doing as well as they possibly can in every game.
“Off the back of our last result against Aberdeen, there’s a little bit of extra spice going into this game. It’s going to be a difficult game up there, and we’ll have to be at our very best to get anything out of it.”
Too often this season Celtic have been able to get all three points out of a game without being at their very best, such has been the low quality of the opposition.
As Stokes said, that is likely to be different tonight, and you get the feeling that the Irishman and his team-mates welcome the challenge to show what they can do.