With eight games to spare, Celtic are champions of Scotland for the sixth successive season. Given that we’ve only dropped four points in that time, it’s probably credit to Aberdeen’s recent consistency that we didn’t wrap it up even sooner.
But that now presents a bit of a problem for us.
We’re still three league games away from playing our next massively important match in our quest to do the domestic clean sweep. Partick Thistle and Kilmarnock will both visit Celtic Park in the next week, and then we’re off up to Dingwall to face Ross County before we return to Hampden to face our city rivals in a cup semi final for the second time this season.
But with the league wrapped up, thoughts are inevitably turning to the fact that we’ll be starting our Champions League qualifying campaign next season just a month after the final international fixtures of this season. Given Scotland started no fewer than six Celtic players against Slovenia on March, not to mention the rest of our squad who will have their own countries to consider, there isn’t going to be much rest for many of our stars.
So the temptation to rest them now while we have the chance may well be too good to resist.
There may well be an unbeaten domestic run to continue, but that’s a nice to have rather than anything else. This Celtic team don’t have the luxury that the last unbeaten champions had. Back in 2003/04, the 2004/05 Champions League had direct entry for the Scottish champions. As with recent seasons, there’s three qualifying rounds in 2017/18 for us to get through.
And let’s not forget that even that 2003/04 team went on to lose their very next league match!
After clinching the title thanks to a 1-0 win at Rugby Park with 29 wins and 3 draws from the 32 matches played, the unbeaten league run was ruined the following midweek by a late Aberdeen winner in a 2-1 defeat. That wasn’t as a result of resting players either, it was purely a case of taking the foot off the gas.
Although that Celtic team had lost the League Cup quarter final to Hibernian and weren’t unbeaten across all three competitions, they had already beaten Livingston in the Scottish Cup semi final by the time the title was clinched. Fortunately they would go on to clinch the double, although they had to overcome going behind to Dunfermline Athletic in the final to win 3-1.
But then again that was Henrik Larsson’s final competitive game for us, so I’m not sure anything else would have been allowed!
If Celtic are to lift the Scottish Cup again this season, and therefore win the treble for the first time since 2000/01, then Brendan Rodgers made it clear in his interview on Sky on Sunday after the match that momentum will be key.
That is the immediate challenge for him and the coaching staff. Keep Celtic winning and maintain that momentum, but keep the players fresh and ready for the semi final later this month and probably most importantly for the Champions League qualifiers next season.
How do we do that though? Wholesale changes to the squad will disrupt that momentum, but there is still a squad there for Rodgers to use and he seemed to suggest he’ll do just that. The team we see against Partick Thistle this week may well tell us a lot about what’s to come, but we won’t know if it’s been a success until the end of the month.
And indeed, the end of August and the Champions League qualifiers.
We also can’t underestimate Partick Thistle either. Our league campaign may effectively be at an end, but theirs is far from it. Thistle currently occupy sixth spot and a top half finish is tantalisingly close for them now. The extra money and the guaranteed safety from relegation are massive prizes for our city rivals, not to mention that a top six finish would guarantee Thistle’s highest ever finish in the league. They’ve never finished above eighth.
With three games to the split they are four points ahead of Kilmarnock and seven clear of Dundee. Ross County and Motherwell can still technically catch them but it would require massive swings in goal difference as well as making up all nine points still available. So really, it’s down to three and even then Dundee are only an outside bet after their thumping by Aberdeen on Friday night.
Clearly then, this battle for the top six is what will make each of our next two games difficult. If Thistle manage to emulate Aberdeen of 2004, then Kilmarnock will be coming to Celtic Park knowing they need to win or the top six is gone – and that’s assuming they have beaten a so called Rangers team currently still hoping to chase down Aberdeen. If we beat Thistle, Kilmarnock come to Celtic Park looking to do what Thistle couldn’t, especially if they can win their midweek game against a team struggling for defenders.
Maybe this is what will help us keep the momentum going. These aren’t two bottom six teams with nothing much to play for. They’ll both be looking for what may be the bonus that tips the top six berth in their favour. That’s on top of the potentially massive scalp of beating the newly crowned champions of course. We’ll be playing against teams at the top of their game, and so we will need to do likewise.
However if we do mix the squad up a bit, maybe we’ll see players keen to impress. Players who may well take the opportunity to stake a claim to play in that upcoming semi final. Players who will help keep their positional rivals in the squad on their toes.
And if we’re really lucky, we’ll see the return of Tom Rogic from injury too.
There are ten games left this season, at most. We need to win the semi final to get that tenth game. The unbeaten domestic run doesn’t actually matter in the grand scheme of things, but if we do maintain it then we guarantee winning the treble.
But it’s more than that now. With the sixth title in the bag, we’ve booked our place in the Champions League qualifiers once again. We all want to get back to the Champions League group stages next season, and if we have to sacrifice the unbeaten run to do that then so be it.
Then again, wouldn’t it be wonderful, magical if we can have both?
Krys (Twitter @krys1888)