Over the next six weeks, that’s Saturday November 18th to Saturday December 30th, Celtic have no fewer than thirteen fixtures to play. Every weekend and midweek has a Celtic game up to the winter break, including the League Cup final, the regular league fixtures as well as a few catch up games, and the two remaining Champions League fixtures.
I’m all in favour of a winter break, after all watching football in freezing conditions isn’t fun, but when all it does is cram a ridiculous number of fixtures into freezing cold December nights then you have to wonder if there’s really any point. We should just start the league season earlier if we really want to have this break, play the games in far warmer July.
All the teams are either playing League Cup or European fixtures then anyway!
However, we are where we are. So let’s get started, and hopefully we can enjoy the rest of the calendar year. We certainly did last year, and if we can repeat that run where only Barcelona managed to beat us and only Manchester City got a draw with us, then we’ll not only be in a great position domestically but we should find ourselves with European football after Christmas to enjoy too.
But more on that later. First up, it’s a trip to Dingwall and one of only three grounds where we dropped points last season.
Well, I say dropped. In actual fact, we were cheated out of three points by a blatant Alex Schalk dive that referee Don Robertson deemed to be a penalty. That came late on in a game where we had taken the lead through a first half Kieran Tierney strike, only to be pegged back to 1-1 by former Celtic youth player Michael Gardyne. Patrick Roberts had put Celtic back in the lead with twelve minutes to go, only for Liam Boyce to level from the spot after Schalk’s triple pike.
Dingwall was one of our trickier road trips last season, although the scoreline in the game earlier last season certainly doesn’t reflect that. If you looked at the 4-0 scoreline you’d think it was an easy run out for Celtic, but in actual fact Celtic were lucky to be in the lead for so long before a late flourish.
It had started well enough with Patrick Roberts scoring after just three minutes, but County had arguably the better chances in the game after that and even hit the post before Brendan Rodgers made a few subs to strengthen the team and get a few more goals to make the points safe. Stuart Armstrong got the second with seven minutes to go, before Scott Sinclair and Moussa Dembele added a couple more in injury time.
There was, of course, a moment of madness at 1-0 when Craig Gordon came rushing out and clattered into Liam Boyce. Some suggested he should have seen red, but since it wasn’t actually a clear goal scoring opportunity and Gordon had dropped his leg to try and avoid the collision thus negating the possibility of serious foul play, the yellow card he got was probably the right decision. That didn’t stop everyone moaning about it of course, and one wonders if referee Robertson didn’t consider he was evening things out later on. He certainly sent Scott Brown off in the latter game, after the penalty for the dive, for something that was later reduced to a caution.
We faced Ross County earlier this season at Celtic Park, and although it was a similar 4-0 scoreline to the one last season it was was a far more routine win than the Dingwall game last season. Tom Rogic and Moussa Dembele had Celtic 2-0 up at half time, before James Forrest added two more after the break. County barely troubled Celtic that day.
It’s all change for Ross County since then though. Soon after that game at Celtic Park, Jim McIntyre left the club and was replaced by former Celtic managerial target Owen Coyle. A 2-0 win over Kilmarnock immediately followed, and while they’ve lost at home to Hearts and away to Aberdeen since then, they’ve also beaten Hamilton, drawn with St Johnstone, and most recently beaten Motherwell.
Indeed, County were 3-0 up on our soon to be frequent opponents at half time, courtesy of two goals from Gardyne either side of a goal from Davis Keillor-Dunn, before being pegged back to 3-2. It’s a run of results that has pulled County away from the bottom of the table and they now sit in a more healthy eighth position just a point behind Hearts in sixth.
No doubt, with so many fixtures to come over this next period, Brendan Rodgers will be making full use of his squad as he has done throughout this season. Tom Rogic has travelled about a lot this last week as Australia got past Honduras to book a place at the World Cup, while Mikael Lustig is probably still partying after helping Sweden to knock out Italy. Dembele also managed a quick hat trick for the French Under-21s, so he should be coming back in good form, ready for this next run of Celtic matches.
Fortunately, Scotland’s pointless friendly against the Dutch was well over a week ago now and didn’t feature Scott Brown or Leigh Griffiths, although both were apparently due to minor injuries and they’re both fit for this next run of games. Hopefully Tierney, Callum McGregor and Craig Gordon, who all featured in that match, should be more rested and ready to go again.
Indeed, even Erik Sviatchenko appears to be back ready to play, as is Jozo Simunovic. The only player Celtic have out injured now in Anthony Ralston, which other than meaning that Lustig will need to sober up and hope he doesn’t have a hangover, is wonderful news. I mean, when did we last have three fit centre backs?!
Celtic’s domestic away form has been excellent of late, and you would hope that would continue in the first of these thirteen matches. But you can be sure Owen Coyle will have his eyes set on being the one to end Celtic’s new domestic unbeaten record. He’s experienced enough and a decent level to have a good idea of how to go about it, so it will be up to Celtic and Brendan Rodgers to ensure they don’t get a sniff.
Besides, you never know when the next Alex Schalk style decision might crop up to ruin your day.
Kryst (Twitter @krys1888)