Just one final step for Celtic to be treble invincibles

Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers, right, must outwit Aberdeen boss Derek McInnes to claim a domestic treble. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS

Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers, right, must outwit Aberdeen boss Derek McInnes to claim a domestic treble. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS

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Even if you know your history, as Celtic supporters so often proclaim in song, it is not easy to place in context the scale of the potential achievement within the grasp of Brendan Rodgers and his players in the 132nd Scottish Cup Final this afternoon.

Only once before has a team gone into the final match of a Scottish domestic season with the opportunity to finish it unbeaten and triumphant in multiple major competitions.

On that occasion, way back in 1899, it was Celtic who spoiled the party with a 2-0 win in the Scottish Cup final against a Rangers side who had become league champions with a record of 18 victories from 18 fixtures.

While it may be as futile to compare the two eras involved as it is to try to measure the relative standards of Scottish football within which any of its most successful teams have operated down the years, there can be no doubt that this Celtic side are on the brink of standing alone in the annals of the game in this country.

Even the Lisbon Lions, whose truly extraordinary campaign of 1966-67 has been so widely documented and commemorated this week, tasted domestic defeat in that all-conquering year.

No-one could reasonably suggest the 2016-17 vintage can lay claim to eclipsing the status of Jock Stein’s European champions of 50 years ago but if Rodgers’ squad do complete a 47-game undefeated domestic treble today, they will have merited any of the superlatives directed towards them.

As he conducted his final pre-match press conference of his maiden season in Scotland, Rodgers admits it is a scenario he could not have even beginned to imagine last August.

“No, not at all,” said the 
Celtic manager. “So many things have happened but you just don’t think about that.

“You go in and on the first day you are presenting to your players and thinking about getting them to follow you in the way you work and the way you want them to play. Then you set your targets in pre-season about what you want to achieve. The players have superseded them, they have gone beyond. As the season has gone on longer and longer we have been able to adjust our goals and keep striving to push. Can you break the barrier? Can you keep going to the next one? But you have to do that without suffocating them. You have to feel that there is another goal but if they don’t achieve it, it is okay. But, if they can reach that barrier and go beyond, then it is a wonderful place.

“For us, there is now one more step to go to cap what could be a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. You only have to see how many years it has taken for a team to go through 38 games unbeaten and you see how few times it has been done, a team winning three trophies in the same season. To actually have the two together is like a dream.”

The size of the task facing an Aberdeen side who remain undisputably the best of the rest in Scottish football is illustrated in the margins by which Celtic have already consigned them to the runners-up spot in two competitions this season. The champions finished a yawning 30 points above the Dons in the Premiership table and produced an equally comprehensive success in the League Cup final between the teams back in November. If anything, the 3-0 scoreline at Hampden that afternoon did not fully reflect the scale of Celtic’s superiority.

Little wonder, then, that Celtic are unbackable favourites against Derek McInnes’ side. But within the five fixtures between them throughout the season, all of which Rodgers’ team have won with an aggregate score of 12-2, there have been some slivers of hope for the Pittodrie boss and his players to latch onto as they seek to cause a massive upset today.

The stiflingly pragmatic approach adopted by McInnes in the league game at Parkhead in February, lost narrowly to Dedryck Boyata’s second-half goal from a set piece, indicated Aberdeen are capable of frustrating Celtic. Then at Pittodrie two weeks ago, after a calamitous start from the hosts which saw them 3-0 down after just 11 minutes, they rallied vibrantly to prove they are also capable of creating chances and troubling the Celtic defence.

As McInnes himself observed yesterday, it will require a “nigh near perfect performance” from his players, pulling all strands of their ability and tactical discipline together at once, if they are to become the first Scottish opponents to find a way to beat Celtic under Rodgers.

“We still feel we’re capable of that,” said McInnes. “We go into the game in good form. We’ve got to recognise the efforts of Celtic this season, they’ve had loads of plaudits and rightly so.

“I would say there’s been spells in all the games against them when we’ve done okay, other than probably the League Cup final. But primarily our focus is on a lot of stuff we did in the last two games against them.”

It is difficult, however, to escape the logic that, if Celtic play to anywhere near their optimum level, then Aberdeen’s bid to win the Scottish Cup for the first time in 27 years is destined to end in 
disappointment.

Celtic are the tournament’s most successful club, lifting the trophy 36 times, although it has been a source of relative frustration in recent times with only two triumphs in the previous 11 seasons.

But in a campaign when a unique slice of history has appeared to be on the cards for some time now, Celtic surely hold all the aces this afternoon. Get ready to re-write the record books.

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