An 11-point lead at the top of the Premiership provides Celtic with plenty of breathing space in their defence of the title this season but Scott Sinclair insists they are finding it tougher to maintain the level of domestic dominance established under Brendan Rodgers.
While it was Hearts who finally ended their invincibility against Scottish opposition since Rodgers took charge, it is the challenge posed by Hibs this season which Sinclair cites as the biggest evidence of the increased difficulty faced by the champions.
The three matches between the sides so far have produced 14 goals, with 2-2 draws in the league at both Celtic Park and Easter Road either side of a 4-2 win for Sinclair and his team-mates in the Betfred Cup semi-final at Hampden.
That leaves the winger wary of the threat posed by Neil Lennon’s side who are back at Celtic Park this afternoon.
“It’s much harder this season,” said Sinclair. “Teams have looked at how we play and they come up with different formations and different ways to try to stop our players. The more often you play teams, it’s always going to be more difficult the next season around.
“Every game is tough. It’s going to be another difficult game against Hibs. The last time we played at home against them, they could have nicked it when they went 2-1 up. But we dug deep and got a late equaliser.
“We know they aren’t going to come to our place and just sit back. They do come to try to attack. They are a team who come to win, not just to sit in and try for a draw. I’m sure it’s going to be another exciting game.”
Sinclair has scored in both of Celtic’s matches since the winter break, netting in last Saturday’s Scottish Cup romp at home to Brechin City and then converting a penalty in the 2-1 league win at Partick Thistle on Tuesday night.
That takes his tally for the season to 17, leaving him firmly on course to at least match the 25 he scored in his debut campaign in Scottish football which saw him sweep the board in the Player of the Year awards.
“It’s nice to come back with a couple of goals straight after the break,” he added. “It was great for myself and the team.
“It’s a good return for this stage of the season, especially since I’m not even playing as a striker. But for me, it’s all about keeping on going and performing. Hopefully, I can beat last season’s total but I’ll take each game as it comes and keep bouncing on.
“We had a nice break in Dubai and everyone benefited from it. Obviously, we were training when we were out there but we’ve come back and hit the ground running. That’s what happened last year as well. You refresh yourself when you’re away so that, when you come back, you can regain that momentum. But it helps everyone to have that sunshine on your back for a while and now it’s up to us to keep winning games.”
Celtic and Hibs will face off on a pitch which was relaid at a cost of £1.5 million last summer at the request of Rodgers. The hybrid grass “Desso” surface, similar to those in the English Premier League, is crucial for the development of his players in Rodgers’ view.
The former Liverpool boss has again expressed his concern at the wider state of pitches in Scottish football which he believes present a barrier to efforts to improve the general quality of play on view.
“I know we’ve had a wet winter up here but the pitches make it more difficult for you,” said Rodgers.
“It’s a problem in a lot of ways, not just for Celtic, because it’s about standards and there’s a conversation to be had there in terms of developing players. I’m sure there are still coaches here who are happy for the pitch to be long, happy for it to be worked on and cut up and made shorter, because of the team they’re playing against. But that’s all a dated mentality and then they wonder why young players don’t have quality.
“I’ve seen a lot of young Scottish footballers since I’ve been up here and they’ve always got to be sure of their first touch. They have to take a touch, why? Because the pitches are poor. They don’t learn to play quickly, it’s difficult for them to play one touch because they are always fighting with the ball.
“Thankfully, the club backed us on the installation of our new pitch last summer. It won’t be how I want it until next season, because it’s a two-phased system in laying it down, but hopefully it will see a faster and better game at Celtic Park more consistently.”