Celtic can’t afford to take their eye off the ball again in what looks set to be the closest Scottish Premiership title race since they last failed to capture the championship in 2011 – when a final day showdown went in Rangers favour.
Thursday’s barnstorming 2-1 comeback win over Lazio has the Celtic squad and support in a buoyant mood, but complacency cannot be allowed to creep in ahead of Sunday’s game against Aberdeen.
— Celtic Football Club (@CelticFC) October 24, 2019
Livingston inflicted the Bhoys only domestic defeat of the season in the aftermath of their last Europa League fixture when downing the champions 2-0. Neil Lennon described that defeat as “a learning curve” for some of his new players and it’s a message that must be swiftly understood. Just three days after the Lazio epic, they travel to Pittodrie chasing a win to ensure they maintain their narrow advantage at the top of the table.
Old Firm supremacy is back
After eight years of imperious dominance from the green and white half of Glasgow, Rangers improvements appear to have re-established the domestic duopoly. With a quarter of the season played the Old Firm have almost identical records: won seven, drawn one, lost one and a goal difference of +21. Celtic are top by virtue of having scored one goal more than their eternal rivals. Indeed, it’s the tightest the pair have been at this stage of a league season since 2007 – a year which also boiled down to a final day title decider. That leaves little room for error in their quest to complete the penultimate leg of the vaunted 10-in-a-row.
Until last week’s draw with Hearts, Rangers only dropped points of the season had come against Celtic. It’s not inconceivable that they could continue to suffer in the Old Firm derbies while stealing their way to league success by swatting aside the weaker outfits. With back up players the quality of Jermain Defoe and a summer of managerial consistency for the first time in three years, there appears little doubt Steven Gerrard has Rangers better equipped to mount a sustained challenge than at any point since their financial implosion in 2012.
Recent history suggests Aberdeen is one of the most favourable fixtures to have following a European night. In the last three seasons, they have played each other four times directly following a Celtic Champions League or Europa League match. The Hoops record of four wins and three clean sheets from those ties speaks for itself.
The last time Celtic visited the northeast an assured three-goal win sealed their eighth consecutive league title and the good times don’t stop there. Since the appointment of Brendan Rodgers in 2016, the Dons have only recorded a solitary win in this fixture – that coming on the final day of the 2017/18 season when Celtic had long wrapped up the league crown. Coincidentally, that win also meant Aberdeen pipped Rangers to second place. Three cup finals in the same time span have come and gone with yet more Celtic jubilation.
Rodgers successor Lennon boasts an impressive record of his own. Over his two spells as manager, he has faced Aberdeen 19 times, winning 15 and tasting defeat only twice (Soccerbase). It’s a remarkable run of form against a side who were consistently Celtic’s closest challengers during Rangers four-year-long trawl back through the lower divisions of Scottish football.
That does not mean Aberdeen should be underestimated.
A slow start has them staring longingly as both members of the Old Firm race off into the distance. Some Dons fans were even calling for Derek McInnes to go after a particularly humiliating 5-0 defeat at Ibrox. However, his side emphatically proved the doubters wrong with an impressive 3-0 win over in-form Motherwell last time out. In Sam Cosgrove, they have a player transformed from misfit to one of the deadliest strikers in Scotland. His goals per game ratio last year was bettered only by Alfredo Morelos.
Another concern for Lennon is the absence of Ryan Christie – so influential against Lazio – who is serving the second game of his two-match suspension. Tom Rogic’s return to fitness is timely and the Aussie will be aiming to recapture old glories against this opposition if he is to challenge the effervescent Christie for a spot in Lennon’s preferred starting line-up.
As short a time ago as August, the Green Brigade were warning against complacency within the club as they embarked on chapter nine in their decade long journey towards Scottish footballing history. European glories and an effective finish to the summer transfer market has settled the mood nicely, but Sunday is the chance for Celtic to show that focus lies squarely on one target – 10-in-a-row.