It surely remains a question of when, not if. Despite dropping four points in their last two Premiership matches, it would still take a collapse of Devon Loch proportions for Celtic to relinquish their title over the next four weeks.
But Neil Lennon’s hopes of overseeing a stylish canter to the club’s eighth successive league crown are in danger of being held up by the kind of plodding displays which prompted him to vent his frustration at some of the players involved in Sunday’s 0-0 draw against Hibs at Easter Road.
For Celtic as a club, it ultimately won’t matter too much how they clinch the title, just as long as they do and secure a pathway towards potential Champions League riches next season.
For interim manager Lennon, however, the manner in which Celtic complete the job started by Brendan Rodgers does carry greater significance if he is to remain in charge beyond the summer.
It has, by Lennon’s own admission, been a delicate balancing act since he answered Celtic’s call in February following Rodgers’ hasty departure to Leicester City. For the former club captain, well versed in collecting silverware during his first four-year stint as manager of the club from 2010 to 2014, it was very much a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.
Lennon remains unbeaten after nine games back in the Celtic technical area, seven of them in the league and two Scottish Cup victories which have booked a Hampden date against Hearts on 25 May when a triple treble of domestic trophies could be achieved. But while the performances in those cup ties against Hibs and Aberdeen carried the kind of swagger and dominance Celtic supporters have come to expect from their team, displays in the league have been less convincing since Lennon returned. There have now been three goalless draws on his watch, while two of the four victories were earned by stoppage-time winners.
It’s understandable that Lennon has now expressed his intention to try to fully impose his own personality on the team in the remaining weeks of the season.
“Maybe the players saw a side of me on Sunday that they’ve not seen before,” he reflected.
“But I have been at the club, involved at this club, for a long, long time. I’m following in great footsteps and maybe it’s not Brendan’s way, the way I approach games. Listen, I have this reputation as being a hairdryer type manager. Not at all. But there are times when the players need to be told and I think Sunday was one of those days.”
Having gone 13 points clear of Rangers with victory in the Old Firm match at Parkhead on 31 March, there is a sense that the Celtic players have psychologically already confirmed themselves as champions again.
Lennon agrees that may explain the difference in mindset between their commanding performance in the 3-0 Scottish Cup semi-final win over Aberdeen and the league stalemate at Hibs in which their lead at the top of the table was cut to nine points.
“It looks that way,” said Lennon. “I don’t know if it’s the environment or the circumstances. But this is their title, this is their time, they have to make the most of it. This is a great club – they can’t just put in inconsistent performances.
“They have done brilliantly and on Sunday of all days, after what was a spectacular win at Hampden last week, it should have been the start of them playing like that consistently. But, again, for the first 20 minutes I thought I was looking at a different team. Even in the second half at times, we were slow with the build-up or the switches of play but the game did eventually start to open up and we knew that because we felt Hibs would tire and then the gaps started to appear.
“At times the decision-making with the final ball or the pass or the cross or the finish was just lacking. We park that now. But we have to work on approaching the remaining games a lot better. The fact it was another 0-0 draw in the league would be a worry if we weren’t creating chances. But against Hibs we had great chances to win the game. The nil-nils come from not starting in the right manner and again we didn’t start in the right manner against Hibs. I don’t need to tell the players, they need to look at it and analyse it themselves.
“I don’t think it’s a case of them thinking ‘we just need to turn up to win the game’ but certainly our play in the final third on Sunday wasn’t at the acceptable level.”
Olivier Ntcham was a notable culprit in that regard for Celtic, the French midfielder enduring a wretched afternoon before being replaced by Tom Rogic midway through the second half.
“Olivier just had one of those days and you don’t expect that from a player of his quality,” observed Lennon. “He looked tremendous in training, that’s why we went with him. We feel Tom’s not at full fitness yet.”
Lennon is also seeking an improvement in the standard of Celtic’s execution of set-pieces after being left frustrated by their failure to make the most of a number of promising dead-ball situations on Sunday.
“Some of the deliveries were good and some were very, very poor,” he added. “There’s an inconsistency there. We work on them, we practise them, but you need to get them right in the moment and give the lads a chance to go and actually attack the ball.
“We nearly got one at the end from a set play; Ofir Marciano made a great save from Jozo Simunovic’s header. That pleased me but we need more of that, consistently.”