However much their authority has dissipated over the winter, they will always be the nine-in-a-row luminaries, the men responsible for four straight trebles that burnished their championship exploits.
Yet now, with Rangers possibly within a day of tearing away their title crown, they could be on course to become the first Celtic team since the 2009-10 edition to endure a barren season. In that context, the revived Scottish Cup takes on mighty importance. An 11-season low has to be avoided at all costs, Mohamed Elyounoussi recognises.
“That would not be a nice thing to be remembered for, or be part of,” said the on-loan Southampton attacker, now close-on two years with the Parkhead club. “In the end, that is nothing in our minds. We go hard into training to improve, into every game to win. We are still trying to win every game to see where we go, but obviously the league is really tough. The Scottish Cup gives us a chance to win a trophy, and we are holders. We want to keep it again.”
Celtic can only, in name, hold on to their champions status for a matter of weeks. If they prevail against Dundee United on Sunday and then overcome Rangers in their following Premiership encounter - which brings the pair together at Celtic Park on March 21 - they can delay the Ibrox side’s official coronation until the first round of post split fixtures are contested on April 10/11. Yet, with a Scottish Cup third round tie at home to either Arbroath or Falkirk in the first weekend of April, Celtic’s sorry season will not entirely peter out in the coming nine days whatever happens in their next two league outings.
John Kennedy does not disagree that a wearying campaign has been given new impetus by the dusting down of Scottish Cup. He would not say as much, but even his step-up to interim Celtic manager following Neil Lennon’s departure last week, could assist in fostering a sense of revitalisation.
‘It’s good news for us, the competition coming back in,” said the 37-year-old. ‘It’s just extra motivation. Because obviously Rangers are in the position they’re in... which we just have to accept and concentrate on ourselves, look at our own performances and create some consistency. But when you bring another competition into it, there’s a bit of silverware to go and really attack. And the Scottish Cup is ours at the moment. We’ve had great success in the competition [with four straight wins] It’s something we want to keep hold of. It gives us something else to focus on and go for, in terms of silverware, hopefully to finish the season off on a high.”
It creates the potential for a crammed fixture list across April and May, with the final pushed back a couple of weeks till May 22. Any top flight team that reaches the Hampden showpiece would face a month of jumping between league games and cup ties every three or four days until the final Premiership fixtures on the weekend of May 15/16. Kennedy believes that is preferable to the final stages of the cup being held over until next season, as was the case for the 2019-20 tournament that Celtic ran out winners in just before Christmas. A scenario unavoidable because the entire country was placed in lockdown for three months last March by the Covid-19 pandemic.
‘We’re happy with [the cup scheduling],” he said. “We’re fortunate enough to have a squad big enough to cope with the extra games, if required. I look at the experience of last season. With what had to happen because of everything that came on us so quickly, they had to carry it over to get it finished. But it’s not quite the same vibe. You’re already into a new season but playing in a competition from the season before – so it gets a little bit lost. It was great to win it for us and everything, to finish that off [the fourth straight treble]. But there’s nothing like going into May with, hopefully, a cup final around the corner and something to play for at the end of the season. That’s what kind of tops of the season. So, if it can be done, it’s definitely the right thing to do.”
Celtic have six wins from seven games, for all their deficiencies. Despite his own future being up in the air, Kennedy considers Celtic, as a team, could lay down a marker for next season by winning their seven remaining league games and the five ties that would claim them the Scottish Cup.
“When you’re in the middle of a season, going into games, how you perform as a team, that reflects on how you’re going to go forward,” he said. ‘So, for the players, it’s about getting back to what they’re good at. High level performances and winning games. This season, it’s been too inconsistent. There’s been a real variety in performance and results – it’s been too up and down.
‘I want to get that to a more even level, where it’s consistent. And that gives you better base to build on for going forward. The players know this. They’ve made it very clear that they’re driven to reach those levels again. We know what’s happened with the season. Fine, we need to deal with that. But it’s about looking forward all the time. You can bog yourself down with the season, feel sorry for yourselves and everything else. But life goes on, the club goes on, the team goes on. And it’s great that the Scottish Cup is back because that gives us something to go for. But, ultimately, there’s also a bigger picture beyond that – getting back to the levels we know we’re capable of.”