Wednesday, December 14, 2011

SPL Advent: Celtic

Day two of our Scottish football Advent calendar. Celtic lurk behind today's window.

Was it really just a few weeks ago that all hope was lost and Neil Lennon's job prospects looked bleaker by the match?

Celtic teetered as Rangers thrived, the SPL gap was getting bigger and the Parkhead title challenge was being written off.

A defence that seemed porous and ponderous hamstrung a side apparently beset by apathy and poor form.

Modern footballing hype dictated that we pointed to a crisis, that the deficiencies were analysed until they took the form of insurmountable obstacles.

Yet some measure of Celtic's defiance remained, hints of a certain resilience were apparent.

The nadir might have been reached at 3-0 down to Kilmarnock. Punch-drunk and bloodied, Celtic could still drag themselves from the canvas to win a point.

Now, the deficit cut from 12 points to a far more scalable four, they might just have snatched the SPL momentum.

What changed?

The European win over Rennes, a game which began with an early concession and saw several storms weathered, segued into victory in what was billed as the "second place" clash with Motherwell.

Two tests safely negotiated. Enough, perhaps, to inspire the current run of six straight league wins.

Maybe the catalyst was something far simpler. How much did Kris Commons turning up at training bedecked in neck brace and bandages help lance the boil of rumour and unease that made dodgy results seem worse and hampered the chance of a recovery?

Commons the practical joker breathing spirit into a squad that needed reinvigorated? Stranger things have happened, even if outweighs much of his impact on the pitch so far this season.

Maybe all it took was good players remembering that this is a league that throws up opponents they should be able to dominate.

Weaknesses, of course, remain. Celtic had lost three games by the first week of October. By the end of that month a Hibs team that was attempting to redefine hopelessness had taken a point home from Glasgow.

The defence has been chopped and changed and has too often appeared unsettled on the pitch. Big wins have come but at times Celtic have struggled to convert dominance into goals. That combination will lead to dropped points.

It's strange though how an often false narrative can develop around a team.

We might think Celtic are diminished compared to last season. Maybe they are. But they're only a point worse off than they were at this stage last year. They've conceded only one more goal than they had last season.

Equally importantly they've timed their recovery from a "crisis" period at almost exactly the point where Rangers have endured their own wee slump.

On Saturday Celtic emerged with three points after a struggle against Hearts. Back in October you wouldn't have expected them to come through such a test intact. It's exactly the kind of win that can appear much bigger in May than it does on a cold December evening.

In a two horse race you'd rather be four points ahead than four points behind.

But the last few weeks have been kind to Celtic and the coming weeks promise the return from injury of some big names.

That should be reason enough to look forward to the festive season with optimism to spare.

Santa Claus is coming to town


Celtic - despite an oft stated commitment to good housekeeping - would appear to be the best placed of all the SPL sides to carry the disposable consumerism of our Yuletide orgy into the January transfer window.

Constructive signings who can offer long term solutions to the travails of earlier in the season would seem to be the order of the day.

Such players aren't always easy to find. Santa might feel it prudent to tell Celtic that if they can't find better than the toys they've already got they shouldn't bother.

But two gifts are likely to top the wishlist: An Old Firm win between Christmas and New Year and an SPL title in May.

On current evidence the former would be a massive stride in the direction of the latter.

The Scottish Football Blog blogathon took place in November in aid of Alzheimer Scotland and the Homeless World Cup. You can still donate to help two great causes.