When you are sitting 11 points adrift at the basement and have a meeting against the second-bottom club to come next, it could be tempting to write-off a clash against league leaders Celtic.
But as we know from his days as a bustling striker, Dundee United manager Mixu Paatelainen is not the type to shirk a challenge. He views tonight’s televised meeting with the champions as a precious opportunity to secure a result that delivers some momentum to his side’s survival bid, even if the odds are stacked so firmly against them.
United’s dreadful record against Celtic is already well recorded. They have not beaten them at Celtic Park since 1992 and lost 5-0 there when they last played, in Paatelainen’s second game in charge. More significantly since it is where tonight’s fixture takes place, United have won only three times against Celtic at Tannadice in their last 28 league meetings, stretching back to 2000.
But even a draw would hearten Paatelainen prior to next weekend’s critical clash with Kilmarnock, also at Tannadice. He quickly dismissed the notion that United have nothing to lose this evening.With just 17 games left to save themselves, no opportunity to retrieve some lost ground ought to be passed up. Paatelainen, as we know, was the type of character who used to roll up his sleeves when playing in friendlies.
“I don’t think there is ever a match with nothing to lose,” said Paatelainen. “We have much to lose. We have three points to lose. We need points so there is plenty to lose.
“We want to approach this match to try to win it or, at worse, take a point. It won’t be easy playing against the highest quality side in Scotland. It will be very difficult. But on our day we know we can cause them problems – and hopefully that day is tomorrow.”
United are not entirely without hope, of course. Two of their three home victories against Celtic in this millennium have occurred since 2012. But despite this being a fairly recent marker, the Tannadice side are a much-changed outfit. For a start, two players who scored in their last victory over Celtic – a 2-1 success in December 2014 – are now part of the visitors’ squad. Nadir Ciftci and Stuart Armstrong made the difference that afternoon. Another former United player, Gary Mackay-Steven, could also return to haunt the home fans.
There has been dizzying change in the last 12 months, with United slumping from title contenders to relegation favourites. Not that Paatelainen is allowing any sense of surrender to creep in. Although Mark Durnan and Guy Demel are suspended this evening, he will hand new goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima a home debut, and is boosted by the return of Paul Paton after a long injury lay-off.
“He has been training now for a few weeks and is looking good,” he said. “He demands, he encourages. He gives players praise. He is a leader type. He is solid in the tackle and does not shy away from those situations.”
Spirit is something Paatelainen regards as an essential ingredient for those pulling on a tangerine shirt in these difficult times.
It is a quality that informs his quest for new signings as he continues to wait for an answer from Anthony Stokes, whose loan move from Celtic to Tannadice has been sanctioned by Celtic. If they are not up for the battle, then he questions whether they are the type of character he wants in any case.
“I’m sure some players decide against coming to us because of where we are in the league table,” he said. “That’s only natural. You expect that.
“But, on the other hand, do we want that type of player here? We want strong characters here. We want players who will do it no matter what. If somebody comes here, or we approach somebody who has a weak mentality, who shies away from coming to us because of where we are in the league table, then that’s not a player that we want.
“If you look at strikers for example, we want somebody who comes here and feels, yes, Dundee United play very positively, they have attacking tactics and they create loads of goal-scoring opportunities. I am the player who scores those goals and will be a hero at the club.
“That’s the type of character we want here. That person needs to be a strong character. That’s what we are looking for. The search goes on.”
There is no doubting the passion of the United supporters, who have given the side strong backing in recent weeks despite the dire situation. Several spilled on to the pitch after Blair Spittal’s winner against Airdrieonians in the Scottish Cup last weekend, an incident that is now the subject of an investigation by the SFA compliance officer.
But Paatelainen was prepared to forgive these fans. Indeed, he interpreted the invasion as simply showing how much they care.
“We can’t ask for any more from the supporters,” said the manager. “They showed away to Airdrie last weekend how much it meant to them when they came out of the stand to celebrate.”
Now it is up to the players to reward such fervour, frowned upon though it might have been in some quarters.