If the prospect of a genuine title race should spark a fresh sense of excitement and anticipation at the top of the Scottish Premiership, someone forgot to tell the Celtic supporters on Saturday.
Whether it was the bitterly cold weather or the tepid performance of Ronny Deila’s team, those in attendance at Celtic Park struggled to muster much in the way of enthusiasm for what they were watching.
In the end, it was a fully merited victory for the champions over Ross County which lifted them three points clear of Aberdeen and transfers the onus back to Derek McInnes’s men to maintain the momentum of their challenge away to Inverness Caledonian Thistle tonight.
But while Celtic remain favourites to win the title for a fifth successive season, the quality of football currently being produced is largely leaving their fans cold.
For all of their dominance of possession against their League Cup semi-final conquerors, much of their work was laboured and uncertain, while the decision-making of attacking midfield trio Stuart Armstrong, Stefan Johansen and Gary Mackay-Steven in the final third of the pitch often left much to be desired.
With grumbling and groans increasing around the stadium, Leigh Griffiths’ 30th goal of the season on the stroke of half-time proved a crucial turning point as he smacked home a left-foot shot after County had failed to properly clear a Kieran Tierney cross.
The outcome was assured in Celtic’s favour when central defender Dedryck Boyata, who had one of his most effective games yet for the club, headed home an Armstrong cross 12 minutes into the second half of a contest which will fade almost instantly from the memories of most who witnessed it.
Erik Sviatchenko, perhaps, is one of the few who will recall it fondly. It was his home debut for Celtic and the Danish international defender savoured the clean sheet and victory.
The 24-year-old was in the Celtic side which lost 2-1 to Aberdeen at Pittodrie earlier this month but he has already convinced himself the Premiership trophy will be staying in the east end of Glasgow.
He said: “It’s very obvious that in every title race everyone wants to keep track of each other. But, first and foremost for us is to keep our eyes on ourselves. We did that against Ross County and we will do that again next Saturday. We will keep doing that and at the end of the season we will see that we will be the best.
“The intensity and pressure at Celtic hasn’t surprised me that much. I knew before I signed that you have to win every game here.
“In Denmark, I was used to it being okay when you were just leading 1-0. Here, it always has to be better. But I also always want to do better. We created a lot of chances against Ross County but 2-0 is a good start. I see some good improvements in the team. It is the beginning of very good things.”
County never looked capable of repeating their recent Hampden victory over Celtic with captain Paul Quinn admitting afterwards that the timing of Griffiths’ opener was a major blow to their strategy.
“We didn’t come just to camp in but we did come with a plan to frustrate Celtic,” he said. “For 44 minutes we did that but, fair play to Celtic, they kept prodding and it was a great finish from a top striker.” Quinn has an insight into the title race, having played for Aberdeen in the first half of the season before his return to County last month.
“Aberdeen have got enough to push Celtic,” said the 30-year-old defender. “Certainly, the quality is there. They will need a slice of luck along the way, as you do when you play against Celtic.
“But the lads up in Aberdeen have momentum behind them. There has been a lot of negativity on this side of the country about Celtic, their team and their manager.
“To be honest, I think some people should just look back and give Aberdeen some credit rather than looking at negatives from Celtic. I think it could go all the way down to the last couple of games.”