SIMPLY being the best of a bad bunch is not a status which will endear Celtic to their supporters. The jeers which greeted a dismally uninspiring stalemate against Ross County on Saturday, leaving Ronny Deila’s team clear at the top of the Premiership table, were testament to that.
Every probability and application of logic still leads to the conclusion Celtic will go on this season to become Scottish champions for the fourth successive year, with their nominal challengers in the chasing pack unlikely to find the consistency required to cause them sustained concern.
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Yet, in assessing Deila’s mantra that he is making progress as manager of the club, it is equally impossible to avoid the evidence of both your eyes and the relevant statistics. Celtic are misfiring on too many cylinders at the moment and are aesthetically miles away from the levels of fluidity, pressing and incisiveness Deila has charged himself with instilling in his side.
Celtic have now dropped 15 points from their first 18 league games of the campaign leaving them still within sight of the clubs bunched behind them in the top six. Contrast that with the same stage of last season when they were unbeaten in their opening 18 league matches, shedding only six points, and enjoyed a commanding 11-point advantage at the top of the table.
Those are numbers which speak of a team in decline – yet it is also one which, as it stands, is in contention to win the domestic treble which has become Deila’s firmly stated ambition for his first season in the job.
To pull off that feat, Celtic will have to sharpen up their act in terms of midfield guile and penalty area penetration. There was a bluntness about them in those departments on Saturday which could only partially be put down to the grit and diligence of County’s rearguard action.
Deila once again chose to omit his most creative player, Kris Commons, from his starting line-up. Even an early injury to Anthony Stokes did not see Scotland’s reigning Player of the Year called into action. Instead, Callum McGregor got the nod before his general ineffectiveness saw him substituted himself, Commons finally entering the fray with just over 20 minutes remaining. The bemusement of the Celtic support was tangible.
Their frustration now extends towards John Guidetti, the man who had appeared set to become the shining light of their season. But the on-loan Swedish striker’s recent slump in form continued here, missing Celtic’s best chance of the afternoon when he diverted the ball wide from close range after McGregor’s shot struck the crossbar six minutes into the second half.
“John is still getting into good positions, but he is not taking the chances,” observed Celtic full-back Adam Matthews. “It’s just a confidence thing, once he gets one goal he will be up and running again. He has already shown what a good finisher he is for us earlier in the season and he will go on another run.”
It was almost an even more painful afternoon for Celtic when County midfielder Filip Kiss struck Craig Gordon’s right-hand post with a long-range shot six minutes from time.
“It was similar to the 2-1 defeat at Dundee United last week in that we dominated play but just couldn’t take our chances,” added Matthews.
“We started the season well in terms of scoring goals but in the last couple of games we’ve found it hard. That’s the most frustrating thing. We looked threatening at times against Ross County, especially in the second half. They hit the post late on, but that was their only chance.
“It’s tough playing against sides with 11 men behind the ball. You’d much rather them come at you a little bit but you have to expect it here at Celtic Park. It’s up to us to work hard to break teams down and I think we did that in part today, but we need to take those chances.
“We are still clear at the top of the table but we know our performance wasn’t up to scratch, especially in front of goal. We have a chance to put that right against Partick Thistle on New Year’s Day.
“I don’t think our recent form is down to tiredness. We are used to a hectic schedule, playing a lot of games at home and in Europe. We’ve had that for a few years now.
“The boys are just having a bit of bad luck in front of goal. It’s not like we are playing badly.
“I think someone will pay when we get it right up front. I am sure when our strikers get one, they will go on and score a few. Hopefully we can get a nice early goal at Firhill on Thursday and go on and get a good win.”
Despite claiming a valuable point, County dropped to the bottom of the table as a consequence of St Mirren’s victory at Dundee. But that was of little concern to the Dingwall club’s manager Jim McIntyre.
“The only result we could affect was our own,” he said. “I don’t think many teams will take a point at Parkhead, so that’s a positive for us.
“Our players carried out our game plan very well today. Hopefully it’s a wee springboard for us going into the Highland derby against Inverness on New Year’s Day.”
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