It’s not so long ago that Neil Lennon was praising his Celtic players for their consistency.
After a weekend in October where Liverpool and Manchester United had suffered freakish drubbings in the English Premier League, the Celtic boss looked at his own side and declared himself happy with how they were coping with closed-door games.
Consistency was “remarkable”, the backroom team had done “amazing work” and Lennon was “thrilled” with the mentality and said it came from “self-motivation”.
Since then Celtic have failed to win two games in a row and have only registered a pair of victories in eight games. Consistency and steadiness has deserted the team and it’s only made worse by the relentless nature of Rangers’ progress that has seen them open up a healthy gap at the top of the table.
It all adds up to a situation where, not for the first time this season, Lennon’s future is being openly discussed, and is openly desired by many fans.
The word from inside Celtic Park is that the club has no intention of removing him and the Northern Irishman has no intention of resigning.
That confidence will only hold if there’s an overwhelmingly positive return from a stretch of games that runs to the turn of the year and another showdown with Rangers.
It’s a big ask but one that, on paper, shouldn’t be beyond a side that has swept all before them in recent years and, even in this difficult season, can point to a run of eight consecutive wins.
The manager, and no doubt the Celtic hierarchy, will look at four home league fixtures against St Johnstone, Kilmarnock, Ross County and Dundee United, and a trip to Hamilton, as an opportunity to go into the January 2 clash at Ibrox with a strong feeling that their title aspirations haven’t been damaged beyond repair in recent weeks.
They will feel that success in the cup competitions, including a festive final that could clinch the Scottish Cup and a quadruple treble, would restore a feel-good factor. Europe may be a tougher place to make a mark but after the humiliation against Sparta Prague, an improved showing would restore respect at the very least.
It’s an ambitious plan but one that Lennon, who launched a vigorous defence of his credentials not so long ago, will feel he is equal to. Delivering on the promise he’ll see in the fixture list will depend on his ability to negotiate the myriad challenges of a fascinating run of fixtures.
To look at the potential pitfalls competition by competition is to see why there’s little breathing space in the next six weeks.
Defeat in any one of the remaining Europa League games against Sparta, Milan and Lille would be damaging enough but anything less than six points would likely see the team exit Europe before Christmas for the first time in four years.
A shock loss in the League Cup would see a historic stretch of wins in cup competition come to a crashing end and end the domination of domestic silverware. Losing to Championship side Hearts in the Scottish Cup final with the quadruple treble on the line would be a body blow and one that the team might still be suffering from when they face Rangers less than ten days later.
Which brings us to the ultimate prize: the Premiership trophy and ‘ten in a row’. Celtic are 11 points behind but hold two games in hand and there are three derbies still left to play. While winning the two outstanding fixtures would narrow the gap to five points, it’s worth noting that can’t happen before the teams meet at Ibrox.
The Old Firm loss may stand out as the only domestic defeat of 2020 but Celtic can’t approach the January rematch with any more, or many more draws on their record if they want the match to be significant in the final destination of the trophy.
Taken individually, each games holds its own test but has heavy significance for Celtic, for Lennon and the relief or addition of pressure on both. But collectively, the task becomes harder.
Celtic have 11 games in 37 days, and that’ll increase to 12 if they take care of Ross County in this weekend’s League Cup match.
That puts Celtic in a situation they may be used to after serial success in recent years but isn’t ideal for a team trying to right a slump in form. The physical demands and need for rest days mean that training will necessarily be focused on recovery and won’t be the place for laying out major changes in style or tactics.
Consistency of results often comes from consistency of performance and consistency of selection. That approach isn’t open to Lennon either. A game every three days means rotation is necessary and decisions over when best to use each asset will be crucial to avoid slip-ups but also to ensure that players don’t start the New Year derby worn out by the demands of late 2020.
Any players who are deemed to benefit from stick more than carrot might find their time on the sidelines shortlived as the effects of game after game demand their reintroduction sooner rather than later.
Undoubtedly though, something has to change for an uptick in form and with the pressure unlikely to change and the calendar pretty much ruling out major changes in personnel or approach, it will be the mental side where Lennon has the opportunity to change course.
Since the praise mentioned at the top of the page, defeats and dropped points have seen a striking change in the manager’s language. Goals conceded have been attributed to laziness and players’ attitude has been called into question. There’s been suggestion some are resting on their laurels, and pretty direct accusations that some don’t want to be in Glasgow.
Celtic’s squad still has the quality that has brought unparalleled success in recent seasons but a fix is needed and Lennon will have to rely on his man-management skills to get the best out of his players again.
The first evidence of whether the problems from the past few games can be eradicated will come on Thursday when points and pride are at stake in Prague.
The heavy defeat at home to the Czech side was the starkest demonstration of how Celtic have dropped a gear in a troubled season. The rematch could be a starting point for a demanding stretch that will test the team and show if the faith being placed in the manager is well placed.
The fixture list makes it clear there’s going to be a lot of action in the weeks to come. For Lennon and Celtic to succeed, there’s going to need to be a lot of talk as well.