We have not yet reached the half way stage of the season but the league is all but wrapped up for Christmas.
Even the most pessimistic Celtic fans and most optimistic Aberdeen, Heart of Midlothian and Rangers fans will concede that the title is already in the East End of Glasgow, keeping warm outside the trophy room, just waiting for sufficient room to made before being invited inside.
Attention is now being switched to whether the Hoops can emulate the likes of Arsenal, Juventus and AC Milan and go through the league season unbeaten. There’ll be no extra trophy and the team won’t be awarded extra points for the start of the next season – not that they’ll need any. There is nothing tangible gained from going the season unbeaten. Just prestige: a lasting memory; a lasting legacy.
Before Rangers’ demotion to the fourth tier an unbeaten league season was extremely difficult due to the four league games the Old Firm would play each season. The hype, the pressure, the intensity, the mentality, not to mention the quality each side would possess. The last time either side of the divide came through the quartet of league encounters unbeaten was Celtic in season 2003-2004, although it was a more regular occurrence during the 1990s for Rangers.
Even if either side was straddling the ghost of Shergar and galloping towards the title, derby records were crucial, especially if it was the last game. A lasting impression had to be left, at least until the following season.
Unsurprisingly Celtic and Rangers have both come very close completing a league season with a big, fat zero in the loss column. Rangers lost once on the way to claiming the title in 1921. Between the 1915-1916 and 1916-1917 seasons Celtic went 62 games unbeaten in the league, but it came over two seasons. They lost to Heart of Midlothian on 13/11/1915 and didn’t lose again until 21/04/1917, 2-0 at home to Kilmarnock on the second last day of the season.
Under Martin O’Neill they lost a solitary game to Aberdeen on their way to 103 points and the title, and more recently Aberdeen were again Celtic’s nemesis as Neil Lennon’s side lost just once, at Pittodrie. At least both those sides won the league. In season 1995-1996 they were unable to put a halt to Rangers’ run of league titles at seven despite a sole loss to Rangers. That’s not happening this time around.
If Celtic were to accomplish such a feat the expectation would have been for it to be achieved during the four seasons Rangers were out the top-flight, even more so when both Heart of Midlothian and Hibernian dropped out of the league also. Ronny Deila may have only lost eight of 76 league games across two seasons but there was never the dominance, the feeling, that it could be done.
Now it does.
Until last Saturday afternoon when Louis Moult lobbed Craig Gordon following some Kolo Toure star-gazing, Celtic had trailed for only three minutes in the league. And that was after a stupendous, bordering on ludicrous, effort from Kilmarnock’s Souleymane Coulibaly. Now that figure is up to around 50 minutes.
Celtic’s ability to win both the treble and finish unbeaten should be taken seriously, and not be seen as degrading to the opposition. In fact it should act as a challenge and motivation to the others. Can they be the team to end that run?
Yet, it is difficult to see, at this present time, this Celtic team slipping. They still have to go to both Pittodrie and Tynecastle again, having won narrowly in the first encounters at each ground. Plus, there are still three Old Firm leagues matches to come. Five difficult matches, but five matches Rodgers, his players and the club’s fans will be circling as ones in which to look forward to. They will be seen as challenges, they will have to raise their game an extra level. The type of encounters they would like more of in preparation for the Champions League qualifiers.
They’ve already got the newly named Betfred Cup tucked away in the vast trophy room, while there’ll be no European distraction. Although, that’s not quite the phrase to use. Celtic would relish further European matches, it is only becomes a distraction when you are in the English Premier League and playing in the Europa League.
They can concentrate fully on league business and a mere five games in the Scottish Cup, and they’ve already proven that they have both the quality and strength in depth to cope with such a schedule.
Rodgers should be able to take comfort and inspiration from the club’s 4-0 defeat of Ross County in Dingwall. A second string side battled against a strong Ross County performance before running out easy winners. Then this evening Cristian Gamboa, Gary Mackay-Steven and Leigh Griffiths came into the team and eased to a 4-1 win. The fact Griffiths now has squad player status emphasises the chasm which currently exists and will likely increase.
Wholesale changes can lead to a drop in standards, yet the reserves under Rodgers are improving and trying to bridge the gap from squad player to first-team player as Stuart Armstrong has done so effectively. Using the likes of Mackay-Steven, Ryan Christie and Liam Henderson should still see Celtic look to dominate opposition.
Plus, leaders are developing and coming to the fore below Scott Brown. This should prevent standards from slipping as easily as they did under Rodgers’ predecessor.
There will of course be talk of a lack of motivation. However, going the season unbeaten is motivation enough. Going 38 games without a blemish is quite the achievement. This group of players would go down in not only Celtic but Scottish football history. They would be able to refer to themselves as ‘Invincibles’.
If a defeat does come it may have a knock-on effect, bringing about one or two more as the season reaches its finale. But at the moment that looks increasingly unlikely. Fourteen games played, thirteen wins and a sole draw. There may still be 24 to go but the countdown as well and truly started.