I know a lot of people can’t be bothered with international football and see the “break” as a distraction, not to mention a threat to the fitness of our players, but I’ve slowly come to appreciate this particular one.
There’s something quite nice about being able to relax just a little bit at this point in the season. The European qualifiers, arguably the most important period of our season, are behind us and we now know what lies ahead for the rest of the calendar year. In this case, it’s a Champions League group stage campaign against Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain and RSC Anderlecht.
How very 2003/04.
But to round off the first part of our season, it’s back to the bread and butter of our domestic league and the one competition we always see as being the most important one to win.
Well, I say bread and butter, but actually this weekend’s fixture is a top of the table clash between two of the three teams who have a 100% record from the first three league fixtures. The last team in Scotland to beat Celtic, some 15 months ago now.
St Johnstone come to Celtic Park today on the back of wins away to Kilmarnock and at home to Motherwell and Partick Thistle. In each of those three games, on-loan Michael O’Halloran has been on target and the man who used to be on St Johnstone’s books will no doubt be looking to make it four in a row to not only maintain St Johnstone’s league form but also to try and help his parent club close the five point gap the champions have on them already.
That’s not to say St Johnstone haven’t had a bit of a help along the way. The 4-1 win over Motherwell came in a match where the visitors had three men sent off, one of which was correctly rescinded because Graham Cummins had clearly dived to win a penalty.
Mind you, O’Halloran then missed that penalty, so at least some justice was done. Although, oddly, the compliance officer didn’t cite him for that. Best guess is the compliance officer felt the appeals panel had enough to deal with that week and so didn’t bother citing anyone that week, much to the relief of people like Cummins and Anthony Stokes who managed to pull of both an RKO and a choke hold and get away with just a yellow card that same weekend.
Cummins really should have picked up a two game ban for that dive, but as he didn’t he was able to appear from the bench against Partick Thistle last weekend and is available for selection this weekend too.
Despite their league form, St Johnstone have had a mixed start to their season. That win over Thistle made up a bit for the surprising 3-0 League Cup exit at home to Thistle just a week and a half earlier. Couple that with their massively disappointing first qualifying round exist to FK Trakai 3-1 on aggregate and really all they have to go on so far is their league form.
On their last visit to Celtic Park, back in May, Patrick Roberts gave Celtic the lead early in the second half. Two minutes later though, Steven MacLean levelled the game. Dedryck Boyata quickly restored the lead, and eventually a second goal from Roberts and one from Callum McGregor saw Celtic win 4-1 in a game that was probably more noted for the performance of Michael Johnston and Anthony Ralston than anything else.
The other home game last season came in January, where again Boyata was on the scoresheet for the only goal in one of those games where we had no fit striker and it didn’t quite work as well as we’d hoped. The games at McDiamid Park were trickier, but with scorelines of 4-2 and 5-2 Celtic were still able to outscore any problems at the back.
St Johnstone were one of the few teams last season that actually took the lead against Celtic, being 2-1 up at half time in that second McDiarmid Park game. The introduction of Moussa Dembele certainly turned that game, although St Johnstone were harshly pegged back through a penalty equaliser that was more ball to hand than hand to ball. Most observers would agree Celtic were probably going to go on and win that game regardless though, and the final goal in that particular game was even awarded goal of the season in the end.
Of course, it’s the penultimate game of the 2015/16 that is taking on more significance with each passing fixture as Celtic’s unbeaten domestic record continues unabated. Despite a Leigh Griffiths opener, MacLean and Cummins both got on the scoresheet for the home team to see Celtic lose 2-1. It was a match that meant more to St Johnstone than to Celtic of course, with St Johnstone clinching fourth spot while we had already clinched the league title the previous match with a win against Aberdeen.
But there you go. The last guy in Scotland to score a winner against Celtic is the same guy who should have been suspended for this game but isn’t because the compliance officer couldn’t be bothered doing his job.
Having lost the unbeaten in all competitions run in midweek, and given that this fourth league game of the season actually has far more meaning, I would expect Celtic will want to ensure that we enter the international break with maximum league points and not give up the unbeaten domestic record. I have no doubt that St Johnstone will fancy their chances too, as Tommy Wright has a knack for setting his team up to be stubborn both in defence and attack.
But given the long trip to and from Kazakhstan, this is one of those obvious fixtures where a slip up would be almost understandable albeit not acceptable.
However, this is Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic. We’ve seen time and again that he can manage us through tricky games like these and emerge victorious on the other side. While there’s always a chance of bad luck, injuries, or just a bit of brilliance from the opposition, you can’t help but feel confident going into these games these days.
Krys (Twitter @krys1888)