Celtic are on the brink of making British football history this weekend. If they avoid defeat against St Johnstone, they’ll have broken the British record for most consecutive domestic games without defeat, a 62-game record that has stood for over 100 years and one which Celtic themselves initially set and then equalled last weekend. After a season of enormous success in his debut campaign as Celtic manager, it’s a credit to Brendan Rodgers and his side they’ve managed to bring that form deep into a second successive season.
However, it’s not been all plain sailing in the Scottish Premiership so far. With half of the six home matches in the league ending without a win for the Hoops, it’s left them just a point ahead of Aberdeen and six points a Rangers team that have been characterised as one of the most shambolic outfits at Ibrox in recent times. When you consider that in the entirety of last season they drew just twice at home in the same competition, it’s clear they’re not at their peak.
When at full strength and motivated, Celtic are still streaks ahead of the opposition, as demonstrated away to Aberdeen last Wednesday when they put three past the Dons in a top of the table clash. Away from matches recognised as important occasions though, Brendan Rodgers has used experimentation and heavy rotation, exposing fringe members of the squad to first team action with mixed results.
Are Celtic in danger of taking the Scottish top-flight for granted and giving hope to Aberdeen and Rangers teams that are more motivated than ever to mount some sort of title challenge into the new year?
The argument of course is that with a heavy fixture schedule, Brendan Rodgers is simply using his squad to its maximum, priming his top stars for the European matches that will go a long way to defining their season come May. There were seven changes from the team that drew against Kilmarnock and the team that played against Bayern Munich on Tuesday night, evidence that Brendan Rodgers is clearly prioritising one competition over the other.
What benefits is that rotation actually bringing the team though? From the performances from the likes of Kieran Tierney and Nir Bitton, who both player 90 minutes against the Ayrshire side and impressed versus the Germans, it could be argued that resting so many players is unnecessary.
In fact, when you look at the mid-week matches Celtic have impressed most in this season so far, the weekend before saw a strong team fielded. Just two first pick players were rested in the match prior to the demolition of Astana, before the impressive win at Anderlecht a full strength side played a high tempo game at Ibrox and a few days before the scintillating victory at Pittodrie, Rodgers fielded a strong team against Hibernian in the League Cup semi-final.
In contrast, massive changes were made in the games prior to the heavy defeats to Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich, perhaps demonstrating that the correlation between strong performances and rest in the match prior is weak indeed.
Brendan Rodgers nonetheless has persisted with the policy, is it a rare oversight?
In the one-off matches against direct competitors like Aberdeen and Rangers, Celtic will be fancied to come out on top in almost every one. Neither team have shown much at all in terms of getting close to the Hoops across ninety minutes since Rodgers arrived last May. Leagues though are not just won on these occasions and to lift the trophy in May requires not just unbeaten runs, but winning runs too.
With Celtic having ambitions to reach the knockout stages of the UEFA Europa League in 2018, which they are well on target to do, it’ll leave Rodgers with a welcome but difficult problem. He needs to find a better balance to his ‘weaker’ first team selections before matches he will place extra importance on. Resting one or two of your most important players is perfectly understandable but making upwards of seven changes to a first team every couple of weeks is bound to have an effect on results and it can’t continue.
It gives both Aberdeen and Rangers a needless thread that they can claw at to attempt to unravel the Hoops’ dominance on Scottish football. They’ll know that if they can find consistent results during periods where Celtic may be distracted by the bright lights of Europe, then a rare pressure could be put on the current champions.
While undoubtedly just a slither of hope for both teams, complacency can be a team’s worst enemy and Rodgers must ensure it doesn’t leave the door open for a shock down the line.