The dream of ten in a row died precisely as it deserved to; an utterly miserable affair in which 27 shots on target returned zero goals, against newly-promoted opposition. If it goes ahead, defeat in the remaining Old Firm derby would leave Celtic trailing by a full 23 points, a margin not seen for a generation. Rangers have wrapped up the title in March, but lick their wounds from aun ugly defeat to Slavia Prague in the fight for a Europa League quarter-final.
Celtic’s remaining objectives are now to prevent Rangers from joining them in the pantheon of league invincibles, and defeat them in fourth round of the Scottish Cup, now the only remaining chance of silverware for a team that just three months ago won their 14th consecutive domestic trophy. What could have been a hagiography for a team of so many firsts; the first British side to win a European Cup, the first side anywhere to win a quadruple-treble, will instead be an autopsy of a club that assumed ten in a row would come simply because they were the team that had won the previous nine.
It would be churlish not to credit Rangers, and their turnaround over the last 12 months highlights Celtic’s regression even further. No shame is inherent in losing out on the title to a team that has conceded ten goals in 33 games. What is shameful is that in 2018, Celtic needed just three hours of football to put nine in the Rangers net. The gulf that had developed is made all the more shocking by the speed at which it has vanished.
The context is what makes this season unforgivable. Rangers, quite frankly, vanished. In 2016, when they returned to the top tier, Celtic had just won their fifth successive league title. Rangers’ first season back with the big boys saw Celtic complete a sixth without a single defeat, amassing an incredible 106 points. Celtic became the first team to stop Pep Guardiola’s 2016-17 Manchester City side from winning a game. That it has taken only five years for the roles to reverse in Glasgow is utterly unforgivable.
This season was not an inevitable changing of the guard, or an understandable failure to maintain impossibly high standards amid all the challenges of this insane year. It was the woefully predictable, inevitable, apathetic, and utterly avoidable surrendering of advantages so huge that it will take some time to come to terms with the club’s new embarrassing reality.
What did anyone expect? Events that have transpired were not inevitable until an unforgivable decline in standards rendered them so. Since the departure of Brendan Rogers, the absence of ambition has been tangible. The only discernible off-field vision has been “make sure we’re slightly better than Rangers”.
Last season’s whimpering Europa League exit to FC Copenhagen was followed by a Champions League qualifying exit to Ferencváros, a team with a fraction of Celtic’s resources. It was the third successive failure to qualify for the Champions League group stages, leading into an equally woeful performance in this season’s Europa League, where Rangers accrued more points than Celtic scored goals.
One reason for the diabolical performances, both domestically and in Europe, has to be Neil Lennon’s game management. Leading by two goals after 15 minutes in Milan, he refused to acknowledge that his side was punching above their weight and continued to attack naïvely, throwing away the lead before half an hour was on the clock. Similarly, against Lille, a two-goal advantage was surrendered by Lennon’s inability to acknowledge his faltering side was being picked apart, and (as with Lennon’s position itself), no changes were made until the worst-case scenario had already arrived.
Those collapses laid bare the gulf in class between Celtic and regular European competitors, while Rangers have set about closing their own gap. Fitness has been unacceptably poor, squad depth issues are unforgivable when one considers the transfer fees Celtic have received in recent years, and there is now an overwhelming aura of mediocrity around the club. One of Lennon’s final comments as manager, before a defeat against the league’s bottom side that finally triggered his overdue departure, was that he refused to see this season as the “unmitigated disaster” it is widely perceived as. There can be no greater example of the utter abandonment of ambition in Parkhead.
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