The Relegation Dogfight

No offence to Ross County, but on paper this weekend’s game is the easiest fixture we’ll have for the rest of the season.

It’s the final game before the league split, and Ross County are already confirmed as being consigned to the bottom six. Our remaining five league games against top six opposition were confirmed on Thursday morning, and with a Scottish Cup semi final to follow next weekend against another of the top six teams clearly playing a bottom six team should be easier.

Well, actually, that’s not strictly true.

There’s a scenario that may well see us play a Championship team in the final of the Scottish Cup, but do you really think Hibernian want to give up their hold on the trophy it took them 114 years to win? They’re flying high and should confirm their return to the top flight in the next few weeks, and for that scenario to unfold they’ll have to beat the team currently second in the Premiership having already dispatched city rivals Hearts in a previous round.

Of course, we still have to win our semi final too. But more on that next week.

Surely then, a Ross County team near the bottom of the Premiership table should be a simple enough affair for Celtic to handle?

Well…

We’ve dropped six points this season, four of which were dropped at home against teams from Glasgow. The other two points, and the first of the three draws we’ve had domestically this season, was in the highlands to the team currently four points adrift at the bottom of the table.

If anything, being near the bottom of the table is a bigger problem now than it was back then because with each passing week the desperation for points is increasing. Ross County might be sitting eighth, just two points of Kilmarnock in seventh, but they’re also just three points ahead of Motherwell in the dreaded playoff spot of eleventh.

Arguably, the bottom six dogfight will be the most interesting aspect of the remaining Premiership season as all six teams down there could still find themselves in relegation trouble. There’s nine points between Kilmarnock and Inverness covering the entire bottom six – the same difference between second placed Aberdeen and so called Rangers in third place.

The trick for Celtic this weekend will be to not get caught up in that dogfight.

We have our own priorities of course. The unbeaten run is still going, and with six league games left the finish line is in sight. But we also have a treble to win, and the next obstacle to that goal comes next weekend. As I mentioned last week, momentum is key but so to is the longer term planning for the early start to the European campaign awaiting us in July.

We’ve also seen what happens if you make too many changes in Dingwall this season.

Back one midweek in October, Brendan Rodgers made eight changes to the team that won the League Cup semi final the previous weekend. It seemed like it wouldn’t have much of an effect when Patrick Roberts opened the scoring after just three minutes, but what followed was some massive slices of luck as Ross County looked to be the team more likely to score for much of the game. Craig Gordon was the busier goalkeeper, and County even hit the post through an Andrew Davies header.

There was, of course, the moment of controversy when Gordon clattered into Liam Boyce outside of the box but replays showed that Gordon had dropped his leg long before making contact and the potential red card fear only turned into a correct yellow card decision. Not that Chris Sutton didn’t grab hold of it like a dog with a bone in commentary, and certainly Jim McIntyre wasn’t happy about the decision either. But then you can’t really blame him for hoping.

This came not long after Celtic had brought on Moussa Dembele, Scott Sinclair and Nir Bitton, and those substitutions proved to be vital in the final minutes of the game. Dembele had a great chance saved before Stuart Armstrong made it 2-0, then Sinclair made up for missing a sitter by quickly firing in his very next chance for 3-0. And even then there was still time for Dembele to get on the scoresheet in injury time too.

4-0 was incredibly harsh on Ross County that night, and no doubt they’ll be looking to improve on that this time out. Certainly with a bit more luck they could have had a different story entirely. Mind you, their visit to Celtic Park in December saw Celtic win 2-0 in a far more one sided affair, but then Celtic have always found it easier playing the Highland teams at Celtic Park rather than on their home patch. Back in 2013, Ross County came from 2-0 down to win 3-2 for example.

Hampden is probably even worse, but thankfully neither of them made it that far this season!

There are a lot of factors at play for both Celtic and Ross County in this match, and any combination of those could yet see Celtic come unstuck in our quest to remain unbeaten and go into Scottish Cup semi final weekend ready for the challenge.

In isolation, this game means far more to County than it does to us. But in the context of what has been a remarkable season, to slip up now would seem disappointing and might even derail us enough to give us concerns for the big game next weekend.

And no one wants that.

Krys (Twitter @krys1888)

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