Andrew Smith: An expected procession to the title has put Celtic’s focus even more on Europe
A TITLE procession is guaranteed for Celtic this season. Maintaining motivation could be the most awkward aspect of the campaign.
Kris Commons hopes his team will do that by setting out to make the procession truly garlanded. “Now Rangers are not involved we will be trying to go and win every game,” the attacker says.
Commons doesn’t resort to any blarney by talking in terms of a genuine title race when asked which teams might be able to push Celtic in the SPL. Neither, however, recalling last season, does he disrespect any opponents.
“Everyone is dangerous on their day,” he says. “We had a tough game against St Mirren away. Hearts beat us. Hibs away is always a tricky game so there are banana skins everywhere but, if we play to our potential, then it will be tough to beat us home or away.
“The league is hard. It is not about just being sure we don’t beat ourselves. You have to go and grind out results all over the country. That is the hard thing in trying to win a league. You don’t just win one match, you need to do it over and over again.”
Celtic are expected to do so with such monotonous regularity that their season will be defined by how they perform in Europe. Commons calls Wednesday’s third round Champions League qualifier first leg against an HJK Helsinki side who got through to the tie with a 7-0 aggregate win over KR Reykjavik in the last round, “make-or-break” for Celtic’s group stage ambitions.
“Even if we get past Helsinki we will have a right tough game on our hands in the next round. It is where everyone wants to play. The manager and coaches have been involved in that and they always say they want us to feel it. It is the biggest competition in football so for us as players this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“Wednesday will be a big, big night. It is kind of make-or-break for the European campaign. It will let us see where we are on a European level, whether we are good enough.
“I suppose you could say that you get judged abroad by how you do in these games. European football is where big clubs and big players always seem to do very well. It is just getting in, getting involved, getting that experience and trying to give the fans something to gear up for.”
Commons was critical of the club’s pre-season preparations a year ago with Celtic criss-crossing the globe to Australia and America. It has been “much, much better” this time around he says, citing a “100 per cent” improvement in his own well-being after struggles for fitness and form last season.
The programme has involved a base camp in Germany, a defeat away to Ajax, then home games against Norwich City and Inter Milan, although there is also a game against Real Madrid in the US in a fortnight.
“With a Champions League game first up, if you are not quite at the races you find yourself out of the biggest competition. You need to be out of the gates as quickly as possible. You need to be playing like you do in December, January time where everything is free flowing. If you are easing through pre-season games [that doesn’t help] but, if you are having to work hard and raise you tempo, as you do against the better teams, it quickens the process of getting us where we need to be.”
Or, with Celtic supporters craving Champions League nights to sketch colour into an otherwise grey landscape, where they’d better be.
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