Christmas time at Celtic Park usually brings with it good will and plenty of cheer but this festive period the mood is taking a turn for the worse and needs a quick fix. After a lacklustre display at home resulted in a 2-0 defeat to Hearts at home, Celtic boss Brendan Rodgers issued an apology to the fans as his side lost vital ground in the title race. The loss marks the first time in a decade the club has experienced back-to-back league defeats meaning the hoops remain only five points in front at the top of the table with rivals Rangers looking to make the most of their two games in hand. In the aftermath the 50-year-old boss levied a damning accusation at his players suggesting they lacked ‘desire and passion’ in a move that has certainly dampened the spirit around Parkhead. We’re now six months into Rodgers’ second term and it is patently obvious that he is yet to hit the heights of his first spell, but is this a small bump in the road or a cause for greater concern?
It’s clear there’s been a drop-off since Big Ange left for the Premier League. Rodgers was under intense pressure from the get-go, not only because of the manner of his departure in 2019 but also the dynamic, free-scoring and immensely entertaining team he inherited from the Australian. The Northern Irishman’s style of play by comparison seems like a weaker imitation of Angeball and it has shown. This team showed great resilience to pick up points in less than ideal circumstances time and time again under Ange but that same dogged determination has disappeared in the past five contests. Perhaps the biggest disappointment from the recent 2-0 defeat to Hearts was the knowledge that under Ange this team would have rallied and come away with something from the game but instead manager, players and fans alike were all left wanting. Recruitment hasn’t exactly been great either with many of Ange’s old guard being relied upon over several new additions made in the summer. The squad could do with a refresh this January to revive some competition for starting spots that naturally breeds performances out on the pitch. It’s a similarly underwhelming situation in Europe. While results in the Champions League have been hard to come by for several Celtic managers in years gone by, the inability of Rodgers to buck that trend has not done him any favours, even if there was a slight improvement in performance from game to game. The warning signs are there and should not be taken lightly.
In spite of all the ominous forecasts surrounding the club and a potential downfall this season it’s important to remember that there are still plenty of positives from the opening 18 league matches. First and foremost Celtic still hold top spot. Glasgow rivals Rangers now have the chance to wrestle first place away from the champions in the Scottish Premiership should they win their two games in hand but the onus and pressure is on them to do just that. There has been a downturn in recent results but it was not long ago that the club were unbeaten in the league and two results do not make a season. Bookies with payment options like PayPal still have Celtic as 4/5 favourites to win the league. There are still 20 games to go this campaign and the small matter of the New Year’s derby with an intense home crowd behind them that can turn the tide. There’s no denying the disappointment in losing a 52-game unbeaten home run to Hearts but that impressive statistic alone should give hope to fans that doubt whether the Bhoys can get back on track quickly.
While Rodgers cut a disgruntled figure as he tore into his players on a damaging afternoon for Celtic’s title hopes, there have still been many bright sparks in the squad this season. Chief among them is Matt O’Riley who has comfortably been the club’s best player since the start of the season. The Danish international has nine goals and eight assists from his 24 appearances this term and is sure to add plenty more to that tally if he can stay fit. Alongside him is Kyogo Furuhashi who continues to pose a threat in front of goal for the Hoops. Eight goals and three assists from his 25 matches is not matching the levels we know he’s capable of from his first two seasons but is still enough of a contribution to make a difference and help the cause. Meanwhile Luis Palma has been the unexpected package of the campaign as he has settled into life at Celtic Park perfectly, with 13 goal contributions from only 18 appearances. While there are clearly some who have reached the end of the road with their time at Celtic, there is still enough talent in the squad to make a necessary impact.
The recent results are a bump in the road and with Rodgers accepting he wasn’t surprised by his players failing to deliver a performance this is an all-important moment in Celtic’s season. The manager has failed to inspire the players to victory in the last two fixtures but thankfully for the Northern Irishman the perfect fixture to revive some much-needed passion is right around the corner. There’s no better occasion to get the club’s aspirations for a third successive Premiership crown back on track in what is inarguably the most important fixture of Rodgers’ tenure.
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