The international break has given Celtic and Neil Lennon the time to reflect on a fantastic start to the season.
Top of the league, another cup final and guaranteed European football after Christmas: it’s fair to say he’s a happy man.
“It’s a high-pressure job but I’m embracing the challenge,” he told the Daily Record. “Also, the fact that Rangers are back challenging, that drives me on too. It heightens the senses and pushes me on. The way we’re playing right now is fantastic. With these big games we’ve got coming up, I can’t ask for much more as a manager. I can’t imagine a feeling like we had against Lazio anywhere else in football. That’s just what Celtic brings.”
Elimination during the qualifying rounds of the Champions League is the only blot on the copybook thus far. But nothing is won in November; the most important work is yet to come. Here are what Celtic’s three aims for the rest of the season should be:
The years of the title race becoming a procession are over, but winning the league is still non-negotiable. The Bhoys remain the side with the biggest budget and the best strength in depth of any team in Scotland.
They are also full of proven winners and leaders in the dressing room. Captain Scott Brown has seen and done it all in the green and white. Last week he had former teammate Virgil van Dijk enthusing about his influence.
— Neil Jones (@neiljonesgoal) November 12, 2019
Rangers have benefitted from having a settled squad and manager for the first time since returning to the top-flight. Only a single goal separates the pair at the top despite Celtic having picked up five more points than this stage last year. There is an intensity around their dual that has been missing in the years Rangers scrambled to recover from their financial implosion. In three weeks, they go head-to-head in the League Cup final; a match which could set the tone for the remainder of the season.
A win at Hampden would bring up Celtic’s 10th straight domestic trophy, a truly remarkable achievement. This Rangers side has the best chance of anyone of ending that run, but that match is just one battle in the overall war. The 10 in-a-row dream is tantalisingly close and who knows if they will ever have a better opportunity to make it a reality.
2. Progression in Europe
For the third year in succession, Celtic have European competition to look forward to after Christmas. While the Europa League doesn’t offer the same level of riches or prestige that the Champions League does, this represents significant progress for the club.
However, not since 2004 have they been able to win one of those post-Christmas ties. That win over Teplice took place a year after their famous run to the UEFA Cup final; a time when Celtic fans almost took for granted their reputation as a genuine threat to Europe’s finest. Extending their stay into spring would represent a significant achievement for Lennon. It would also give Scotland’s coefficient ranking a boost, potentially aiding future attempts to qualify for the Champions League.
Results such as the win in Rome against Lazio must instill confidence that this is a realistic target – with the help of a favourable draw. Securing the top spot in the group could be the key to that. The last-32 draw works thusly: the 12 group winners will be joined as top seeds by the four best third-placed teams from the Champions League. They will be drawn against the 12 group runners-up and the remaining four third-placed sides.
By beating Cluj to top spot, not only would Celtic theoretically be avoiding some of the bigger teams left in the tournament (Sevilla, Arsenal and Manchester United are all on course to top their groups), they would also be avoiding the four stronger teams to drop down from the Champions League.
Lennon has already stated that he plans to use the last two group games as an opportunity to rotate the large squad at his disposal. That’s a sensible position given Celtic have already played 27 competitive games this season, relying on a core group of players along the way. However, a win in Romania over Cluj in the final group game would guarantee top spot. Lennon may be tempted to reinstate his first-choice XI for that game to have the best chance of emulating the 2003/04 vintage that he was a part of.
3. Keep hold of their big players in January
The last decade has seen the Scottish Premiership become somewhat of a budget supermarket for teams in the English Premier League. They can pick up players of the required quality for a much lower price than if they played in another country. Van Dijk, Andy Robertson, and John McGinn are all prime examples.
Reports in The Sun on Saturday claimed that Crystal Palace are eyeing a January transfer swoop for star striker Odsonne Edouard. Kristoffer Ajer has been watched by scouts from Leicester City. It can’t be long before Ryan Christie starts getting similar treatment after he opened his Scotland account in spectacular style at the weekend. Such moves should be immediately dismissed by the Celtic board – there is simply too much at stake this season.
Thankfully, Peter Lawwell has a good track record on this. The last time a player resembling a first-team regular left the club in January was 2014. That was Joe Ledley’s switch to – funnily enough – Crystal Palace. Tellingly, that move came when Celtic had already been eliminated from Europe giving less to play for in the second half of the season.
That’s not the case this season and should Celtic remain at full strength, they will be in with a great chance of retaining their title and making a big impression on the continent.