IN CONSTANTLY going public with his target of winning the domestic treble in his first season as Celtic manager, Ronny Deila is being brave or foolish.
Ross County - 0
Celtic - 1
Referee: K Clancy
Or possibly a bit of both. Either way, the Norwegian is now entering the most critical period so far of his quest to fulfil that ambition.
January has been a good month for Deila and his players who have responded positively and effectively to Aberdeen’s emergence as pretenders to their Premiership throne. Saturday’s hard-earned but fully merited success in Dingwall was a fourth successive league victory for the champions, allowing them to ease three points clear of the Dons with a game in hand.
It remains a less commanding lead at this stage of the season than most observers would have anticipated, but there is a feeling nonetheless that Celtic are dispelling any notion that their grip on the main domestic prize is in any real danger of slipping.
Deila’s men are now set up for a momentous February schedule, kicking off with Sunday’s much-hyped resumption of Old Firm hostilities in the League Cup semi-final at Hampden and quickly followed by a tricky-looking Scottish Cup last-16 meeting with Dundee at Dens Park. If both of those hurdles are overcome, the odds on Deila joining Jock Stein and Martin O’Neill as a treble-winning Celtic boss will shorten considerably.
No-one, it must be said, would be rushing to favourably compare the current Celtic side with any of the squads who previously landed the clean sweep – twice under Stein (1966-67 and 1968-69) and once under O’Neill (2000-01). But even those teams were forced to dig out narrow wins against modest opponents at times on their respective marches to glory.
The latest three points garnered by Celtic on Saturday certainly came into that category. There was none of the high-tempo fluency which had marked passages of their play in wins over Kilmarnock and Motherwell earlier in the month. Ross County must take credit for that, their suffocating 4-5-1 formation restricting space and time on the ball for the visitors.
It quickly became apparent that this was likely to be a match won by a solitary moment of brilliance or luck. It was the latter which decided it in Celtic’s favour, Kris Commons’ 52nd-minute shot taking a sharp deflection off Paul Quinn to send the ball arcing beyond County keeper Antonio Reguero into the net.
Celtic, however, deserved their slice of good fortune. They were generally dominant throughout the 90 minutes and in Commons possessed the game’s most inventive performer. It remains to be seen how his post-match bid to place the ball squarely in Celtic’s court over his ongoing contract negotiations plays out but few can doubt they would be a poorer side without the 31-year-old.
While Celtic headed back down the A9 content with a job well done, County were left to reflect on a seventh successive home defeat which leaves them four points adrift of St Mirren at the foot of the Premiership table. Jim McIntyre’s side do have two games in hand on the Paisley club and have also played one game fewer than tenth-placed Motherwell who are six points ahead of them. All is certainly not lost but the tide will have to start turning soon.
Defender Marcus Fraser, who made a solid debut against his former employers after being released by Celtic last week, is confident he will still be playing top-flight football next season with County.
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“We have to be positive,” said the 20-year-old. “It was a good performance all round against Celtic and we need to take that into the next game against Inverness next Saturday. I enjoyed the game from start to finish, apart from losing the unlucky deflected goal. But that happens in football.
“I’m really looking forward to playing here. Jim McIntyre gave me the chance in my first week at the club and I felt I did well. I hope I can now help the team get a good result next week. I’m confident we can stay up.
“The squad here is a good one. Their motivation and tempo in training is good. The training is great and everyone is focused on pushing up the table. We might finish eighth or ninth, it’s not just about trying to avoid bottom spot or the play-off place. We just want to try and win every week. I felt we were unlucky not to get a point against Celtic and that should give us hope for the weeks ahead.”
Fraser made his first-team debut for Celtic at the age of 17 in a Europa League tie against Rennes in 2011 and was tipped for big things at the club by then manager Neil Lennon. But Deila decided the Scotland Under-21 international was surplus to requirements. “I don’t see it as having to prove a point to Celtic,” added Fraser. “Could I have made it at Celtic? It’s not for me to say. That’s up to the coaching staff. But sometimes you have to move on from a club and that’s what happened with me at Celtic.
“They spoke to me but what was said is going to be kept between us. But they were all positive and wished me the best. Hopefully I can move my career forward at Ross County.”
MAN OF THE MATCH
Kris Commons (Celtic)
While far less prolific than last season – his winner on Saturday was only his seventh goal of the campaign – the attacking midfielder remains the most creative and threatening player in the Celtic side.