WHEN a waterlogged pitch prevented them from first-footing Partick Thistle on New Year’s Day, Celtic were helpless to prevent Aberdeen’s ascent to the top of the Premiership table.
But ask the players and staff at the Parkhead club and they will admit that they have no-one to blame for their predicament but themselves.
With a game in hand and another round of fixtures to be navigated over the course of today and tomorrow, they could regain top spot, but it’s a far cry from 12 months ago. As the calendar clicked over into 2014, Celtic enjoyed an 11-point lead over second-placed Motherwell, as well as having a game extra to play. These days, things are not so straightforward. For now, everything is still within their grasp, but their grip on glory is not as firm as they would like.
The fact that Celtic remain masters of their own fate is the important thing, according to Israeli import Nir Biton, who has seen improvement in the teams attempting to deny them, but not enough for him to believe they will see the job through if Celtic can sort out their own failings.
“Everything is about us, honestly,” says the midfielder. “Until now we didn’t play the best football. We need to improve that and when we do that, things will be good.”
Things quite possibly will be, given Celtic’s intention to add reinforcements to ensure greater strength in depth before the transfer window closes. But the journey towards another league title has not been the foregone conclusion most observers expected at the start of the campaign.
“Everybody outside the club expects us to win the league, but it’s not so easy,” says Biton. “We did it easy last year, but this season Aberdeen and Dundee United have tried to close the gap. They did it good, but it’s about how we play and the gap will again be big enough for us.”
Celtic manager Ronnie Deila has stated that winning the league by a single point, while not ideal, would suffice. In his mind, maybe, and perhaps, eventually, in the minds of the fans, but he will not be allowed to enjoy one step of the journey if that scenario transpires, as the panic and the demands of a nervous support will surely infest his dreams as well as his waking hours.
Only seven months into his Parkhead posting, when prioritising the qualities he is seeking in any new acquisitions, high on the Norwegian’s list is an understanding of the Scottish game and the extra expectations heaped on the shoulders of a player entrusted with delivering success to the East End of Glasgow. Already he has sussed that any newcomers must understand that, in those parts, there is a need to win the league, not simply a desire.
Biton says there are other priorities, though. “We want to close the championship as early as we can, but it’s not easy. To win the championship it doesn’t matter if you win by one point or 20 points. That’s just for the newspapers and the people who work outside the club. For the players what is important is to play the way the gaffer wants us to play – to improve every game and to close the games early.”
If the players who have started this campaign in the green-and-white hoops do realise where things have been faltering, they have not been able to turn knowledge into power. Their awareness of the failings exceeds their ability to address them and consistently break down the defences of opponents who have grown more stubborn and impertinent in the face of what they consider a weakened foe.
“Right now, it’s tight, but it’s still about how we play,” says Biton. “We have dropped a lot of points where we used to win and the other teams have tried to close the gap. All the games are tough and when you play against a team like Ross County, which is fighting relegation, of course, they will close the game. We need to be ready for these kind of games.
“Everybody outside the club expects us to win the league and thinks the Scottish League is nothing for us, but – everybody saw it when we played against Dundee United or against Ross County – there is an opponent against us and they want to win as well.
“Everywhere in the world where a new manager comes to a club it takes time to play like he wants us to play. But we are through to the last 32 in the Europa League, we are in both cups and we could be top of the league. We need to improve our game and especially in the Scottish league play smarter and try to close the games early.”
But Celtic haven’t yet found a way to adapt to the manager’s tactical demands and still find a way to fill the scoring void left by last season’s top-scorer and Player of the Year, Kris Commons. So often sidelined by Deila, the Scottish international weighed in with 31 goals last season. This term his sporadic appearances have limited his contribution to just six so far, with only John Guidetti pushing into double figures thanks to his 11 goals in all competitions.
“Kris Commons is a very good player who doesn’t need to prove anything to anybody,” says Biton, who saw the best of him last season. “When you have a player like Kris, who scored 30-35 goals last year, it gave us a lot of opportunities to close the games early. This year we don’t have one guy who has scored a lot of goals but Stokesy [Anthony Stokes] and John [Guidetti] score maybe seven to ten each. This year we play more as a team and that’s what the gaffer wants for us.
“I hope in the next few months that the players [up front] will get more goals because it’s good for them as well. But it is not just the strikers, it is about the midfielders, and the wingers. About strikers, set-pieces, we have a lot of advantages in set-pieces, we have Virgil [van Dijk], Efe [Ambrose], Charlie [Mulgrew], me, a lot of tall guys. We need to use the set- pieces as an advantage for us. Of course, it is not as easy. We need to score goals from the midfield and help the strikers win us games.”
But, while games like tomorrow’s against Kilmarnock are important, Biton says that winning the head-to-heads with those nearest to them could ultimately decide their fate.
“The big games could make the difference. Last week, if we had won against Dundee United, we would have taken the three points from them, and got them for us and the gap would have been almost nine points, ten points.”
Despite knowing that, they still lost, and the Tannadice team remain hot on Celtic’s heels, just two points behind them, albeit having played one game more.
“But we don’t need to think about it,” says Biton. “We just need to play our football the way the gaffer wants us to play and I think the results will come.”
The thinking remains positive and failings have been identified, but, in spite of that, Celtic still ended the first day of the new year in second place, the talking not sufficiently supported by deed.
They hope that a victory over Kilmarnock tomorrow, followed by a mini winter break, which will see Celtic head off for a week of training, games and bonding in Gran Canaria, could give them the time and impetus they need to turn things around.
“I think it is important to change a little bit the atmosphere around the team,” says Biton. “To be together for one week with the coaching staff and the players. It is not about training or the games, it is just to be together and, hopefully, that will help us in the next months.”
But if the hope was to ease the pressure, it seems a forlorn one now. Instead the sunshine sojourn will give the likes of Aberdeen and others, who will stay at home and attempt to add to their points tally, the chance to extend a lead over Celtic. And when they return, they will again be left trying to outrun their nightmares rather than simply chase a familiar dream.