THE last time Celtic prepared to travel to Inverness on league duty it was billed as a must-win game. Now again, just a matter of five months later, they arrive in the Highlands later today preparing to operate under the same sort of pressure.
It is an indication of just how far wrong their season has already gone. It is why Anthony Stokes, the back-in-favour Irish striker, believes there is as little room for error now as there was then.
“That’s the case,” he said, when asked yesterday whether there is just as much pressure on the chasing side now. “Obviously we’re trying to take it game by game but we know we can’t afford too many slip-ups between now and the end of the season.”
This isn’t what any Celtic player will have wanted to be saying in the middle of November, and after what, in the Parkhead side’s case, has been just 13 league games.
Even if Celtic triumph in the Highlands in the midday kick-off tomorrow they will need to endure many more fraught weekends in the months ahead as they attempt to peg back Rangers.
Neil Lennon’s side now trail leaders Rangers by 12 points, although they do have a game in hand. Back in May the lead Rangers held over Celtic was just a point. The Parkhead side had a game in hand then, too. There was one problem – the fixture was against Inverness Caledonian Thistle, a team against whom Celtic had had plenty of problems in the past. Worse still, it was in Inverness, where no team, whether they are the Old Firm or otherwise, can expect to return with victory.
A win would have taken Celtic two points clear at the top with just three games left. Even a draw would have left them level with their rivals from Ibrox but six goals better off.
What happened still haunts the Parkhead psyche. Bottom-six side Inverness deservedly won 3-2 and had Lennon memorably kicking out at bottles of water in frustration. It was a long way back for his team in more ways than one.
Rangers did what they had to do and won their last three matches. Celtic were left to rue a night when they effectively handed the title to Rangers.
“We went into the game looking to win but, listen, we would have taken a draw if we could,” said Stokes. “We just didn’t turn up on the night. It’s as simple as that.
“Now we have to prove it was a one-off,” he added.
Stokes sought to play down the suggestion that it is about more than a game of football tomorrow. However, there is little doubt that the travel, combined with the stiff challenge they can expect to face from Terry Butcher’s side, means it amounts to more than just another tough away fixture. Having scored eight goals in their previous two matches, Inverness have found a groove.
They might be irked to hear Stokes regard them as a long-ball team, but it’s clear there is a healthy respect for Butcher’s team from the striker.
“Listen, everyone knows that when you go to Inverness you have a long way to travel,” he said. “They are a physical team who get in your face, play long balls and try and grind out a result. Perhaps that can get in your head, but you just have to go there and be professional. You know what to expect so you just have to play your own game.”
Stokes blamed an infuriating failure on Celtic’s part to build on good results as a reason for the gap having reached such an alarming margin so early in the season. Celtic now have the chance to follow on from wins over Rennes and Motherwell as they attempt to get their season back on track. Strokes also expects Rangers to come unstuck at some stage.
“There’s always going to be a spell in the season where teams will have a rocky spell,” he said. “Maybe we’ve got ours out of the way. Rangers have been on a great run since the start of the season but there will come a time when they will drop points. I think it’s inevitable that that will happen. We just need to concentrate on ourselves. With the Old Firm games as well you never know.”
Stokes, who had been instructed to talk only about “football matters” yesterday, had to be asked about one tricky subject – his international prospects. His performances both home and away against Rennes might be expected to have won him some favour with Republic of Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni, but Stokes has taken a circumspect stance after he was criticised by the manager for pulling out of three end-of-season fixtures earlier this year. He hasn’t played for the international team since. Neither has he spoken to Trapattoni. Stokes watched on television as the legendary Italian led the Irish to Euro 2012 after a play-off victory against Estonia.
“I don’t think it would really make much difference,” said Stokes, when asked whether he felt he had a chance of a call-up for the recent fixtures following his performances against Rennes. “I think I played well enough in the two European games but the call-up didn’t come. I’m just going to concentrate on my club football and if the call comes that would be great. If not I’ll just need to concentrate on my Celtic form.”
“I don’t see why [the door] should be shut on me, to be perfectly honest,” he added. “If I keep scoring goals and keep playing well and try to improve my game I should have some sort of chance.
“But the lads who are there at the moment have been outstanding and they’ve qualified for the Euros. It’s going to be tough but I’m going to concentrate on my club form and hopefully the call will come.”