There is no doubting that Celtic haven’t hit the heights with anywhere near the regularity they managed during their unique, unbeaten treble-claiming season. James Forrest would argue that they have hit more of their marks this campaign, though.
Forrest has rarely hit anything but high notes in a sparkling campaign that brought the Celtic winger goal No 12 in the win away to Dundee on Boxing Day – a career-best total for a season, with five months of this one still to go.
It was the 50th strike of his senior career, and the 26-year-old would complete his top flight set were he to find the goal touch in the club’s Glasgow derbies over the coming month. For Rangers, visitors to Parkhead in two days’ time, and Partick Thistle, who Celtic will face in the first post-shutdown league game come late January, are the only teams in the upper tier Forrest has yet to net against.
The winger merely wants to reach the break with an eight-point lead in the Premiership maintained, courtesy of another victory over Rangers. With that outcome and a fourth consecutive domestic trophy already stashed in the form of the League Cup, Forrest believes the first half of this season – even with a domestic setback in the comprehensive 4-0 loss to Hearts that ended the record 69-game domestic run – has brought a reward missing as 2016 gave way to 2017.
“Players, staff and everyone connected with the club are all delighted with the way the first half of the season has gone,” the Scotland international added. “We’ve hit all our goals so far and to finish it off with a win on Saturday would be great. [It would be even better than last year] because this time we are still in Europe beyond Christmas [with the Europa League tie against Zenit St Petersburg in February].
“That is a big bonus and it is a big push when we go back because that is something else to look forward to. We have one last push on Saturday and we will give our all.
“Last season was incredible and now we have lost that game to Hearts. But if we win on Saturday it will have been the perfect first half to the season. It would have been perfect all-round and we just want to keep going.
“There is still the same buzz; it’s incredible,” said Forrest of the impending derby that will see out the year. Still Scotland’s highest profile, top draw of an occasion, it is no longer a fixture that has any bearing on the destination of the title Celtic are destined to claim for a seventh straight season.
Rodgers’ side have only failed to beat Rangers in one of the seven meetings between the pair in the past 18 months. The 1-1 draw at Celtic Park the last time the Ibrox men travelled across the city – with Graeme Murty then interim rather than permanent manager – does not still rankle with Forrest. Even if it was the product of a late Rangers equaliser and a failure of Bobby Madden, in charge again this time, to award Celtic a penalty in the closing seconds.
“Rangers have good players and a good team. We are not always going to win by a couple of goals. It is always going to be a hard game,” said Forrest, with Celtic 5-1 and 2-0 in the confrontations between the pair since. “We know for 90 minutes it will be a hard game. We know that game we weren’t at our best but we are confident after our results in the last few games. We will take that into Saturday. When we play at our best, then it will be hard for anyone. But we need to start well and work hard. We know it will be tough but we will be ready.”
Maintaining consistency over the 37 games the club have faced since they began their Champions League qualifiers in mid-July has been exacting and exhausting, he concedes. “We have games every couple of days,” he said. “It has been tough for us from pre-season but it is also good to be involved in such big games. It is going well for the team and me personally.”
Forrest was “buzzing” to discover he had bagged the half century of goals for the club he joined as a schoolboy. The buzz certainly seems to have returned to Rodgers’ men with three wins and three clean sheets since their tousing at Tynecastle.
“Fair play to Hearts, they were better on the day. We know we could have done better but we didn’t get too down about it. We have been solid. We have defended from the front and the back four have been really solid since. The confidence is all still there.”