Brendan Rodgers has acknowledged the “heat” is on his Celtic side following a defeat at Kilmarnock yesterday that condemned the club to their worst start to a league season in two decades.
A 93rd-minute glancing header from Stuart Findlay secured a 2-1 victory for Steve Clarke’s side that leaves the champions in sixth place with only one point from three away fixtures. It is a slump in fortunes for the double-treble winners that Rodgers has conceded places him in new and unwelcome territory across his two-and-a-bit years in charge.
Asked if the struggles of his team means this present situation is the biggest challenge of his time in Scotland, he said: “It is. It’s a challenge. We have to accept that.
“There’s no doubt we need to be better. When you’re at the biggest clubs and you don’t win the heat comes on to you. That’s when you show you’re a Celtic player, manager, member of staff. You come together. When you lose games the spotlight will always be on you.”
With the defeat at Rugby Park, which came after a 33rd-minute Leigh Griffths opener was cancelled out by a long-range effort from Chris Burke in the 63rd minute, following an early reverse at Tynecastle and the recent scoreless draw at St Mirren, Celtic have now dropped as many points at this early stage of the season as they did in the entirety of Rodgers’ opening-season invincibles campaign.
The Irishman maintains the blows now being landed regularly by domestic opponents aren’t simply down to the untouchable aura that once surrounded them having disintegrated.
“I think teams have got better,” he said. “I also think there’s a new- found respect playing against Celtic. At St Mirren we saw it. You saw Rangers come and sit deep, Kilmarnock did that too. It’s up to us, we have to find the answers to that. That’s the job. We have to analyse the game and build the mentality to win your next game.”
That comes on Wednesday when they travel to Perth to take on St Johnstone in the quarter-final of the Betfred Cup. The halting of their run of domestic trophies would bring furnace-levels of heat on to Rodgers and his side but he sought to play down any concerns over the fact they sit sixth in the Premiership table – a point behind second-placed Rangers. No team from Ibrox has been higher in the league pecking order than Celtic for six years.
“Not at this point [is the table a concern],” said the Celtic manager, who revealed that Leicester City loan Filip Benkovic will have a scan on an Achilles problem that forced him out of the starting line-up after he felt it during the warm-up. “We look at it after ten games. We never get too carried away when winning and we won’t get carried away when we’re in the position we are. There’s no doubt we have to be better.”
Meanwhile, Steve Clarke could hardly fare better against Celtic than he has since taking over at Kilmarnock last October. The only Scottish top flight manager that Rodgers has yet to get the better of, yesterday was his second victory over Celtic in a four-game unbeaten run against them. For Clarke there is no secret in holding such a whip hand over the Scottish champions.
“It’s about hard work and good players. We think we’ve got a decent squad here. We think we’ve improved a bit,” said Kilmarnock manager Clarke, pictured, after his side moved above Celtic on goal difference.
“They listen to the advice we give them and they try to put it into practice. Sometimes you get your rewards. We’d have been happy with a point but we’ve left some points behind in other games and feel we should be higher so that tells us where our ambition is.
“When you score so late there’s no time for a reaction. I was pleased for Stuart Findlay. He didn’t train all week but he put his body on the line. He was struggling at half-time but those are some of the rewards the footballing gods give you.
“We were competitive. I was a
little bit disappointed to be down at half-time because I didn’t think
we deserved to be after we started really well.
“We spoke at half-time about believing. We’ve shown we can compete with the big teams. Second half we competed well and deserved to get back in. You’ve got to respond.
“It’s never easy chasing a game against a team like Celtic because of counter-attacks but we handled
that well. At 1-1 I thought that was the least we’d get and I couldn’t see them opening us up.”