The December fixture list is always a challenging one. Games pile up and, when your squad is as light as Celtics, you worry about injury and fatigue. This festive season is more important than ever for the men in green and white. A second against third fixture, a cup final and a game against the city rivals are three key matches that Celtic need to win. These three games could define the season for Ange Postecoglou and his men, one way or another.
Any game against the maroon half of Edinburgh is always a hard and exciting fixture for Celtic. Fans love to see their team go head to head with the Tynecastle side, with the atmosphere and rivalry second only to their rivals across the city. Given how this season started, anticipation is even higher.
Falling to a 2-1 defeat in his first competitive league game was far from ideal for Ange Postecoglou. Losing to Hearts is never a good feeling, doing so as the campaign to reclaim their title from Rangers was beginning was even harder to take. The fact Hearts had just been promoted from the Championship only added to the anxiety most Celtic fans faced going into this season. It has to be remembered though, Postecoglou’s men are in much better shape these four months on.
On that fateful day in Edinburgh, Celtic had Scott Bain in goals, Bitton in central defence, Soro in midfield and Edouard up front. Jota, who has become something of a talisman already this season, wasn’t even in the building and Kyogo had only come out of isolation at midnight. Joe Hart and Cameron Carter-Vickers also hadn’t arrived yet. Despite this, Celtic actually performed better than the scoreline suggests. With 74% possession, 90% passing accuracy and 19 shots on goal, the Hoops dominated and, on another day, could have won comfortably.
This Thursday night, fans will be hoping Celtic can show how far they have come and not only right the wrong of the first game, but make sure they put distance between themselves and Hearts in second place. If the unthinkable happened and Celtic lost, they would find themselves sitting third and potentially seven points behind the League Leaders, something that even the most optimistic of fans would say would be unacceptable heading into the festive season.
League Cup Final
The League Cup has been an ever present in the trophy cabinet at Celtic for the past several seasons. Last year it, along with the Scottish cup and League title, were torn from the Glasgow giants in brutal fashion. Celtic’s capitulation was so drastic and devastating to the fans who supported the team so loyally, that it may never be forgotten.
Winning this years Cup Final in convincing style, and bringing the first available trophy of the season back to Paradise, would go some way to healing those wounds. Postecoglou will know this as much as anyone else. Make no mistake, despite some people questioning whether he truly ‘understands’ what winning at Celtic means, the big Aussie is all too aware that he must secure victory in his first final as boss.
There may still be some doubts over his ‘style’ or defensive displays at times, but not the most part Celtic fans have been fully supportive of Ange and what he has been trying to do. Losing to Hibs in the League Cup final, however, would change how fans gauge the progress under the new boss. Many would have said that getting to a final in his first season, given the shambolic nature the club was in when he took over, would be impressive. Now he has gotten them there, a win is now imperative.
The other aspect is how a victory will galvanise the squad as they had into the next half of the season. Being able to see a tangible reward for the hard work they have put in, especially after last years failures, will give them the confidence that they can secure even more silverware as the season goes on. A taste of winning trophies as a Celtic has become commonplace for some, but will be new to the rest. Either way, sending tall with the League Cup in hand can only help belief as they approach the second Glasgow Derby of the season.
The big one. There is no game more massive to the fans of both clubs than the Glasgow Derby. Given it has been over a year since Celtic scored victory, having already lost to their rivals earlier this year, this particular encounter is huge. For the fans, defeat is unacceptable. For the players, they know that they owe supporters all over the world a big performance. For the manager, this is where he will be judged. Ange Postecoglou has plenty of support from Celtic fans and rightly so, the job he has done so far has been excellent. The few critics he has have become less vocal over recent weeks, but rest assured, losing to Rangers will provoke a very load response.
In the new managers first game against them, his team, on paper, performed well; 66% possession, at Ibrox, with only one shot less than their opponents, and a better passing accuracy rate paints a decent picture. The only stat that matters though is the scoreline, with Celtic losing 1-0.
Like the Hearts game, Celtic were still finding their feet. Edouard again started upfront, Ryan Christie was employed in midfield and Kyogo was pushed out wide left, a decision the manager later said he regretted. Starfelt was still finding his feet and Jota and CCV were not featured. Given the game was very close, and Celtic dominated much of the play away from home, there is every reason to be confident healing into the game at Parkhead.
Some will point to a change in manager across the city as the ‘best time to face them’ but the reality, whoever hard to accept, is that he has inherited a squad who dominated domestically last year and one who has strength in depth, something that Celtic, at the moment, do not. This will in no way be an easy game but the prize for victory will be immense.
Three games that could define the season for Celtic and Potecoglou, three must wins and three chances to show that Celtic are back and they will only get better. Lose and this rebuild could take even longer than expected.