FROM being clear leaders by six points at the top of the Premiership in mid-December, Celtic’s end-of-year stutter and a Firhill quagmire, plus their rivals’ consistency, have combined to see the champions fall four points behind Aberdeen.
Nevertheless, despite Aberdeen’s win over Motherwell yesterday, the fact is that Celtic will regain top spot if they beat Kilmarnock tonight and win that postponed match against Partick Thistle, a new date for which is still to be announced.
Tonight’s match at Kilmarnock will definitely go ahead thanks to the artificial surface at Rugby Park and, for Efe Ambrose at least, the switch from turf to plastic is of no great concern.
“Artificial pitches have never been a problem because we have had a couple a games on this,” said the Nigerian international defender. “And I have been playing on artificial turf when I go to the Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers.
“The most important thing is the football and playing on an artificial pitch will not make a difference. We will go out with the same mentality. We will go there for the win and I hope we get a good result.”
The continuing speculation about a big money move south for his fellow central defender Virgil van Dijk brought a paean of praise for the 23-year-old Dutchman from Ambrose.
“In football, there is always speculation but, right now, he is still a Celtic player and, for us, it is good that he is still here,” said Ambrose.
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“It has been a pleasure playing alongside him. I know he is younger but what he has brought to the team, he is quite a talent and everybody will want to have such a talent in their team.”
So can Van Dijk reach they very top level of football? Ambrose replied: “For me he can. He has not played at the top level games in the World Cup or represented Holland but I believe he has the capabilities to be amongst the best in the world.
“He is still young and he has age on his side and, if he works hard, I think he is going to be one of the top defenders in a few years to come.”
Meanwhile, Van Dijk is a very influential player for Celtic: “It is a gift, everybody has their own gifts and you can never compare each other. But using your own in a positive way is what is most important.
“He has a good voice, he is big, he commands, he has a gift and he can speak, he has a loud voice in defence and he helps us a lot to communicate.
“I don’t speak a lot in the game, I just like to go to the action but Virgil can organise things, he controls the game.”
By rights, Ambrose himself should have been looking forward to a trip to Equatorial Guinea later this month for the latest instalment of the African Cup of Nations, but, to the astonishment of most observers, the current champions failed to qualify for the finals, a draw against South Africa in November consigning the Super Eagles to third place in their qualifying group.
“For me everything happens for a reason and it’s disappointing I won’t be going to the Africa Cup of Nations,” said Ambrose.
“But I’ve put that behind me now and the most important thing is being a Celtic player and helping Celtic to achieve in the games we have ahead of us in January and February.”
Needless to say, he is no fan of the Scottish winter weather which put paid to Celtic’s chances of staying top of the league, Firhill being unplayable on Ne’erday due to the rain.
Ambrose said: “I was disappointed the game was called off because everybody was looking forward to it.
“Credit to Aberdeen that they are top, we will not take that away from them.
“That gives us more of a challenge and we will step up and make sure we claim the top spot, which is the most important thing for us.
“Right now, every game is very important because the race to the title is going to be very difficult this season because every team is doing well.
“The league is getting tougher and everyone is up to the task to win the league. So that gives us more of a challenge for the title.
“But we are just keeping our heads straight, looking forward and concentrating on making sure we win each game we play to the end of the season. We are just training hard and playing in this kind of weather, which is not pleasant, and looking forward to the next game.
Ambrose is adamant that Celtic have not regressed: “We have not gone down. I think we can say that we are improving and playing better.
“But we can give credit to the other teams because at least they are giving us a challenge for the title right now.
“Everyone now looks and says there is a challenge in the league, so it makes everything different.”
Indeed it does. Yet will there be a different end to the league season? The odds are still on Celtic to be champions, but a reverse tonight could make the outcome variable.
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