Back when the fixture list was published, shortly after Brendan Rodgers had been appointed Celtic boss, I used an article on this site to speculate as to whether or not that was a major fit-up. To me, it had all the hallmarks of one; it positively reeked.
Within the first five matches of the season we would be facing Hearts, Aberdeen and Sevco.
Sure the latter two would be at home, but the Aberdeen match was going to be on the back of a major European encounter upon which our Champions League qualification might have depended – as turned out to be exactly the case – and the matches would come so early in the Brendan Rodgers tenure that it had to be wondered how up to speed we would be.
It also created the perfect conditions for making the second quarter of the season – when we might have Europa League game Thursdays – much tougher, with the difficult away game at Pittodrie and a trip to Sevco during it. If our concentration was elsewhere in the first half dozen matches and we found ourselves behind – easy to imagine as Sevco, in particular, had been handed an astonishingly simple and straightforward start – we could be in real trouble going into the second quarter, facing those games bookended by exhausting European ties.
A subtle mind had been at work devising that scenario, but two things had been left out of the equation, and they are now coming to the fore to create a truly extraordinary set of circumstances wherein we could go into that second quarter miles in front of our so-called challengers and giving us the necessary breathing space for those continental games, which of course are going to be on Tuesday’s and Wednesdays now instead of Thursdays.
There are still dangers, but they’ve been negated more than a little by the first of the unforeseen circumstances that has transformed this plan from something that looked good on paper to something that, in execution now threatens disaster for its authors.
Brendan Rodgers has come in and had a truly incredible and transformational effect on Celtic, one that has already swept away the detritus of the Ronny Deila era. He’s replaced that predictable, one dimensional approach with something faster, more exciting and wholly unpredictable. That has made a huge difference to the mood in the Celtic stands, and the results on the pitch have been much improved from last season.
There have been blips, of course; the result in Gibraltar was horrendous and would have haunted a lesser manager, and the reversal in Israel exposed weaknesses in the team that Brendan will even now be working to put right.
In that lies the upside of both performances; that this guy actually learns from them and makes the team better.
Brendan is not a boss who is afraid to make changes to the team even if those mean upsetting senior players or their mates in the dressing room. His decision to drop Craig Gordon yesterday should put the writing on the wall for anyone with the slightest doubt about that. He is determined to see this team succeed, and failure will not be tolerated.
I didn’t think we were great yesterday; a 4-1 score flattered us, to be honest. But that we were capable of raising our game when we needed to is undeniable. The team looked leg weary, yet we still had the stuff to get there, against our biggest rivals.
That is telling.
For those outside Celtic Park it should be frightening.
The other thing that turned the fixture list fiasco from being something good for our rivals into being something bad is the utter ineptness of the teams themselves.
Across the city things are rolling towards catastrophe. Warburton’s team already looks as if it’s running aground now they have to take on full time teams instead of the mainly part-timers they spent the last year facing. The Premier League is a class above where they were before and already the signs are that they are struggling. Watching Barton, he frankly looks as if he’s here on holiday and although the media is still willing to forgive Kranjcar his lack of pace that is going to prove devastating in the long term.
Their start to the season has been awful … and Celtic Park is next.
Quite how he and his team will cope with that remains to be seen, but if they leave having been given a hiding there will be few people who are surprised, outside of the more delusional element of their support, some of whom expect to win. If the psychological trauma of that game isn’t enough to give their fans nightmares then they will certainly get them looking at the league table. If we take a seven point lead we can go into the next quarter without any fears.
There can come a tipping point in a title race, even this early in the season, when a challenger simply chucks it. The psychological effects of draws, defeats and of trying to play catch up against a seemingly unbeatable opponent gets too much.
Pressure cracks a team open like an eggshell rapped with a spoon and everything crumbles.
Sevco were never going to challenge us this year; the briefest look at their squad, with the benefit of having researched their signings, tells a tale of money squandered on second raters and guys who are here for one last pay-day. They were never a threat.
Aberdeen actually experienced their worst stumbles when they saw a clear chance to take over at the top. Their most spectacular slip ups always followed those moments when our own poor form opened up an opportunity for them. That suggests that in some ways they have a staying power which might last as long as our good form does, but it also means that when we slip they may not be able to take advantage as a genuine title rival should.
That fixture list could have been a disaster.
We could have been the team to slip up, and then we’d be facing a tough second quarter. But Brendan has done so well and has the team playing with such class and aggression that we’ve turned the situation completely on its head. We’re top of the league as I write this, with a game in hand, a point ahead of Sevco, two ahead of Hearts and four ahead of Aberdeen. We have Sevco in a fortnight and a chance to put them even further behind and plunge them into real crisis, as they have Pittodrie to visit in short order.
This allows us the room to breathe, and if we go into the second quarter on good form there’s no reason we can’t secure the points we need to virtually tie up the SPL title race before the January sales. Leagues are won and lost in November – December and that’d be the time to tie this up in a bow and start planning for next season.
If the fixture order really was a scam – and the more I looked at it the more convinced I become that it was something other than “random” – it has been a disastrous one. It has already backfired on those who organised it, because of our good form and the rotten football being played by our rivals, both real and media invented.
For the next two weeks we’ll be bored by international football; it always makes me feel like we’re being short-changed, no matter who’s playing or what’s at stake. When it’s over we have the Sevco game and then those big Champions League nights start.
I feel a lot better knowing we’ve got a great chance of going into them having already opened up a gap on the rest.
Had we been planning the fixtures this is exactly how we would have wanted it.
In Brendan We Trust.
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