Celtic’s title bid stuttered badly last season in the league match following a well-earned Old Firm win. Points were dropped at Hamilton and Motherwell after, respectively, a 2-0 win at Ibrox and a 3-0 victory at Parkhead.
Though a later reversal at Inverness – just ten days after a 0-0 draw at Ibrox that looked a better result for the visitors – is regarded as the outcome which sank Celtic, these slips earlier in the season proved just as critical in the final analysis.
It is clear that the intensity of the fixture can take its toll in the days following an Old Firm match, in much the same way as it tends to do in the aftermatch of a tough European fixture. It works both ways. Rangers dropped two points at home to Inverness Caledonian Thistle after a fine 3-1 win at Parkhead in the first Old Firm clash of last season.
They were also dumped out of the League Cup at Falkirk just days after beating Celtic 4-2 in the opening Old Firm clash of the current campaign.
Mjallby insists the hard work starts now as Celtic seek to defend a two-point lead in the championship race after chasing Rangers for what feels like so long this season. “We never panicked and always believed in a turnaround,” he said. “We are proud of them [the players].”
However, the Celtic assistant manager is well aware of the need to treat Dunfermline Athletic, today’s opponents, with the same caution afforded their great rivals, even though the hosts have conceded ten goals in their last three home matches and languish at the bottom of the league.
“Mentally, you can be fatigued after an Old Firm game and the players need to know it’s not just about those matches,” said Mjallby. “You can understand why some players get more fired-up for the Old Firm [derby] because it is such a big game. It’s important, especially for the experienced guys, to make sure the young ones understand that three points at Dunfermline is as important as [against] Rangers.
“In a way, the hard work is just starting and we need to keep the momentum going to show that all the hard work we’ve been doing needs to stay there,” he added. “It’s a tricky game at Dunfermline, with all the pressure on us. The boys need to stay focused and do the same as they did against Rangers. We are not going to get carried away because it’s only two points with 17 games to go. We need to keep doing the right things.”
There is a momentum propelling at Celtic after nine successive league wins. It all feels very different to Celtic’s nadir this season – at half-time against Kilmarnock in October, when Mjallby admits the heat was firmly on the management team, himself included.
It has been reported that Lennon delivered a career-defining half-time talk, although Mjallby believes the shame of the situation was the main spark for turning it around in the second half.
Celtic came out and scored three times to salvage a point. “Neil’s had a few good team talks,” said Mjallby. “But the Killie one was more important because we felt embarrassed. No disrespect to Killie, but we kept shooting ourselves in the foot by giving away ridiculously sloppy goals.
“We were upset in the dressing room, but there was no fighting. Strong words came out and Neil, being the most important guy, told them that they had to turn it around. It didn’t matter how –just turn it around. We all have a say, but Neil is the manager and the voice. If me or Alan [Thompson] have something to say we will chip in as we’re not yes men, but Neil’s the main man.”
In a way, the Swede felt as uncomfortable as Lennon, since it was the Celtic rearguard who underperformed that day and, indeed, had already had many questions asked of it.
“We work in all areas of the pitch, but, as an ex-defender, I took it to heart when we were not performing defensively,” said Mjallby.
They are looking far more solid now. Many of the best performers against Rangers last midweek could be found in defence. Nevertheless, Lennon has added another defender, Mikael Lustig, to the squad, although the Swedish full-back will not be involved at East End Park today.
Lennon is also still on the look-out for another centre-half. Thomas Rogne came into the team against Rangers and worked well with Charlie Mulgrew. Mjallby admits that Celtic are still looking for a settled partnership in the middle of defence.
“You don’t want too many partnerships at the heart of the defence during a season as you want them to get used to each other,” he said. “It’s just about finding the right balance.”
It helps to have someone who can step back into defence from midfield in the event of an emergency, as Victor Wanyama has done. Mjallby praised the 20-year old for adapting so well to the Scottish game.
“It’s a luxury for us to have a guy like Victor, who is equally good in defence or midfield.
“From day one we could see this was a guy who could play anywhere in the world with a top team, given time.
“I struggled with the pace [of Scottish football] when I signed and got about 10 bookings in my first 20 games. But Victor is different from me in the way he plays with composure on the ball. He sees himself as a defensive midfielder but he never moans when we move him back to centre of defence.”