Celtic are ten points better off than at the corresponding stage of last season’s Premiership. They go into their Boxing Day fixture away to St Mirren looking to extend their winning league run to 11 games, and in the process show they are in no danger of flagging ahead of a certain derby on Sunday that will complete a 64-game year.
Neil Lennon insists Rangers will not enter his mind as he picks his team for Paisley. But the fact that the Ibrox men have stayed on the shoulders of the nine-in-a-row chasing champions – doing so with one of their best openings to a top-flight campaign in half a century – is driving up his team’s standards, the Celtic manager concedes. He welcomes that, and knows all about how the season could conclude after being involved in four last-round title finishes while on the club payroll.
“Being pushed just increases your instincts and keeps you really focused,” he said. “You know that you can’t have a slip-up and I think it makes you better. It makes you less complacent or comfortable and I think it’s good for them. Maybe they haven’t had that, although this time last year the two teams were pretty close. But the players are enjoying the pressure side of it.”
Nothing will be taken for granted against Jim Goodwin’s men because Lennon knows a slip-up at any point in the season could prove decisive in the final reckoning.
“I do remind the players that it could come down to any type of game,” he said. “Sometimes you lose due to bad luck or the other team playing brilliantly. I remember losing to Hearts in 2003 when Austin McCann scored an absolute worldy against us at Tynecastle. Sometimes you can’t legislate for stuff. It’s fine lines at the minute.”
Yet, Lennon’s satisfaction is that the lines haven’t been as fine as they have been coming into the final straight before the winter shutdown in recent seasons. The avoidance of any real December dip – save for the difficulties at home to Hamilton and in the Betfred Cup final against Rangers – is a tribute to the conditioning and application of a side stiffened by the contributions of summer signings. Lennon recognises special commendation can be given to Christopher Jullien, Jeremie Frimpong and Fraser Forster on that front, but also is aware of the strength in depth provided by Boli Bolingoli, Greg Taylor and on-loan Moritz Bauer, as well as the currently injured pair Hatem Abd Elhamed and Southampton loanee Mohamed Elyounoussi.
“We can’t come off it [against St Mirren] because if you do that and it doesn’t go your way and you get a sort of negative result, then you put a lot of pressure on yourself going into other games. So there is no reason for me to rest anyone at the minute,” Lennon said.
“We had three games in six days there. We changed maybe one or two in the team. There is no reason for me to make wholesale changes. They have now had a five-day break so they have had that extra bit of recovery time.
“I think St Mirren will be a tough nut to crack away. They were well organised at Celtic Park. It is one of those games where, if we do come off it, we will be punished.
“When I look at this run there’s not really many games where we’ve been off it or come away thinking ‘we were’t very good’. We have got individuals who can change a game in a moment. Once they get their noses in front you can just see the confidence ooze through them. There will be wee bumps along the way, no question of that.
“I know it can flip very quickly, but I am really enjoying what they are doing at the minute. As a backroom staff – the way we are playing, the intent and the quality. We are very exciting to watch. At this stage, winter months and all that, you can get bogged down, but they don’t look as if they’re getting that way.”