9 November ~ The last seven days have been a rare good week for Celtic, bringing victory in the Europa League against Rennes and over Motherwell in the SPL. But it is a mark of how priorities have changed that the former was considered a bonus while the latter was seen by many as the game Neil Lennon had to win to keep his job. Because Celtic are 12 points behind Ally McCoist’s Rangers. It wasn’t meant to be like this. For most of the second half of last season we played a passing game that generally got results. The persecution of Lennon strengthened club unity, and he was beginning to look like a decent manager in the making.
We started to dominate Old Firm games from the new year onwards. This was to be Rangers’ season with a rookie manager, and with a massive financial black cloud hanging over Ibrox Celtic should have been the only act in town.
But while Rangers have dropped just four points in 14 league games so far, Celtic have displayed a level of inconsistency that is usually a guarantee of losing the SPL. So where has it gone wrong? Most accusatory fingers are pointing at our defence, with good reason, even though we conceded fewer goals than anyone else last season. We can’t mark set pieces, and that’s just the tip of our capability for defensive disaster. But we’ve also failed to score in three league games this season, which isn’t Dan turning-circle-of-a-Gary-Caldwell Majstorovic’s fault.
Until recently I was pinning most of our problems on our inability to break down defensive, well-organised teams. Then we visited Kilmarnock, who play as wide open as the American prairies. This is what we need, I thought: a nice open game will suit our pseudo-Arsenal passing style. Killie put three past us in the first half.
So we can’t defend and we can’t always attack. And there’s more. We’re too inexperienced: both in the management team and on the pitch. It’s now obvious how over-reliant we were last season on attacking full-back Emilio Izaguirre, who’s out injured for six months. Our other key players have – to a varying degree – been frustratingly inconsistent. We seem to be buying players for potential sell-on value rather than to win games. While Rangers new boy Carlos Bocanegra slots straight into their defence, we still have no confidence in our centre-backs.
It’s no surprise that we still look more likely than Rangers to drop silly points, making the embarrassing prospect of them winning the league in spite of potentially going into administration ever more likely. I don’t mind a levelling of the playing field in the SPL. I’d be happy with a return to the open league of my childhood. I welcome dramatic games against Motherwell. But not while Rangers – with their dastardly tactics of playing experienced players in key positions – are still winning pretty much every league game. Mark Poole