Saturday, March 03, 2012

Celtic: Winning their way

A staggered weekend fixture list gives Celtic the opportunity to go 23 points ahead at the top of the SPL tomorrow.

23 points. Maybe only for a few hours having played a couple of games more. But 23 points?

At one stage this season, with similar quirks of TV scheduling handicapping them, they found themselves 15 points behind Rangers.

Quite a turnaround. If David Cameron had pulled off a swing like that he wouldn't have to keep inviting Nick Clegg round to Downing Street for sherry and uncomfortable chit-chat.

No, it's been a remarkable couple of months for Celtic.

"But wait," cry some. "If Rangers hadn't been docked ten points things wouldn't be so simple."

True. If Rangers hadn't been docked 10 points what is currently a 35 point turnaround would only be a 25 point turnaround.

Ignore for a minute the problems at Rangers and appreciate just how Neil Lennon has transformed a season that looked - at 3-0 down to Kilmarnock on 15 October - like it was spiralling towards disaster for Celtic and a sacking for their manager.

Celtic haven't lost to domestic opposition in the 23 league and cup games since their Rugby Park comeback. Only Hibs have stopped them scoring in the SPL, only Atletico Madrid have beaten them in all competitions.

This isn't just a team doing the sensible thing and making the most of their main opponent's weakness. This is a team breaking records, focussing on a treble and smashing their way past the opposition.

It's a remarkable run that doesn't deserve any addendum about rivals reaping the bitter harvest of their own folly.

As Scott Johnston pointed out on this week, Kilmarnock have played a role in this SPL. They've beaten Rangers home and away.

They looked to have Celtic beaten. But Celtic found something, they came back, they got a draw. That was the platform they needed, proof - maybe for themselves as much as anyone else - that here was a team equipped to cope, a team to survive and a team to thrive.

What of the manager? There were those - and, yes, I might have been among them - who thought that Lennon would struggle to guide Celtic to the points total that so nearly won them the title last season.

Yet with nine games to go Celtic are just 18 points off that total. They look likely to surpass it.

Last year Lennon was forced to serve an apprenticeship with Walter Smith masterminding things at Ibrox. He was also, horribly, at the centre of the storm as the mindless and the bigoted were gripped by hysteria.

He came through. He didn't win the title but he must have proved to himself that it was within his reach and that he had the strength of character to grasp the opportunities that come with the pressures of such a strangely exposed job.

This season he has survived that period of patchy form. He's survived the problems in defence that provided those of us who don't support Celtic with such merriment.

He's coaxed improvement from players - Scott Brown returning to form, Charlie Mulgrew becoming an international, the constant demands and challenges that are helping the easily distracted Anthony Stokes keep his focus and many other examples - and he's cured a failing of the past. This Celtic team can win even when they're not at their best.

What is their best? These things are relative. By their own admission Celtic aren't in the business of competing with the very best these days. But they're better, by a distance, than any of their regular opponents.

And it's a team stuffed full of potential. The realisation on the pitch of Celtic's revised ambitions as a footballing business.

I've seen them recover from a half time deficit to win 4-1 at Easter Road. And I've seen them blow Hibs away in a 5-0 thumping in the league.

Hibs were not at their own, I'll use the word advisedly, best in that 5-0 defeat. But Celtic played with a confidence and a clinical efficiency that was much improved on their perfunctory 2-0 win at Easter Road on the opening day of the season.

A team learning and improving. And a manager learning and improving with them.

The result of that is going to be a title. Perhaps even a treble.

He might not be speak about trophies not yet won but this league title is one that Neil Lennon will relish.

And one that he and his team deserve on their own merits.

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