Very few criticisms can be directed at Celtic under Brendan Rodgers. Failure to rise to the occasion is certainly not something that can be levelled at them.
So manager Brendan Rodgers and defender Filip Benkovic’s confidence going into two crucial away fixtures at the home of title rivals is not misplaced. Why should they not have faith in players who have shown again and again they have what it takes to go to such awkward-seeming places and earn victories?
They did so at Pittodrie twice last season, scoring five times without reply.
Their last visit to Ibrox saw Celtic win 3-2 after twice going behind. Indeed, they triumphed on successive league games at Pittodrie and Ibrox in spring last season – the wins were either side of a Scottish Cup victory over Morton, so the task was not quite so demanding as the one facing them now, when they are required to negotiate these two games, perhaps their toughest challenges on the league calendar, in a matter of days. Central to all their success at both grounds last season were dominant performances from Scott Brown. It was on their last trip to Pittodrie when the skipper went viral online for appearing to celebrate being hacked down by Sam Cosgrove, who received a red card for a late challenge just eight minutes into his Aberdeen debut.
Most players would have been content to roll around the floor for a few seconds. Brown, by contrast, sprang to his feet and beat his chest. It’s this inspirational quality that means it seems certain he will return to the side after his unusual deployment as an unused substitute in Saturday’s 3-0 win over Dundee.
It’s interesting that Cosgrove, whose lack of goals compounded this unpromising beginning to his Aberdeen career, is now operating on full confidence after finding the net six times in his last four outings.
He’s one reason why Aberdeen are back in their customary position as genuine threats to Celtic. It’s not an option for Rodgers to send out a slightly unfamiliar looking side, as he did for the weekend victory over Dundee, a performance he says he enjoyed as much as any other in his time as manager. Particularly cheering for him were the displays of youngsters Mikey Johnston and Anthony Ralston.
“We’ve had a great 2018,” he said. “We started slowly in the league but we’ve been finding our feet and the win over Dundee was one of the most enjoyable since I’ve been here.”
But it’s one thing beating a beleaguered Dundee side at Celtic Park and quite another challenge entirely overcoming an in-form Aberdeen, who have, following a slow start, begun to look like their old selves of late. “They are a good side and have been our nearest challengers and have been second throughout my time here,” noted Rodgers.
The Celtic manager has already stated he’s likely to return to stalwarts such as Brown and Dedryck Boyata, who is set to return after a hamstring injury, as he attempt to finish off the year with two wins which would double as very persuasive statements of their intention to retain the title.
What better way to head off to sun in Dubai for a winter break than on the back of victories over teams currently lodged in second and third place? It would help mitigate the damage done by the recent defeat by Hibs. Two successive victories since then have also helped Celtic recover prior to two games where they know they will be tested to the maximum.
“They are very important games,” said Benkovic. “The whole of December has been very important for us. It has been very tough.
“These next two games are very important.
“We need to go game by game. Now we must focus and prepare for Aberdeen. They are a good team and we respect them a lot. But we know our qualities and we want to take maximum points.
“This team has played a lot of games at the highest level, including in the Champions League,” he added. “We are hungry and we are hungry for these kind of games because they challenge you more. You play football because of challenges and these games will be tough.
“In every game you play you send a message. If you relax a little bit it can punch you in the face. We must take these games 100 per cent seriously.”
Celtic have proved under Rodgers that they relish such challenges. “It is amazing,” said Benkovic. “When you go on to the pitch and heard the loud crowd, especially in away games, it gives you more energy and makes me more determined to win. It inspires me.”
Benkovic hopes these games are not farewell appearances in a hooped jersey. While he signed on loan until the end of the season Leicester City, his parent club, have the right to assess the situation in January.
“I can’t say any more because I don’t know,” he said. “Probably I will stay, but we will see in the next few weeks. We speak from time to time. They call me on the telephone but it is difficult to say what will happen.”