TOMORROW'S match against St Mirren represents a significant psychological milestone for Celtic.
Full-time in Paisley will signal the onset of the winter break they have artificially created by postponing next weekend's SPFL Premiership match against Kilmarnock and, although respite will be brief, Neil Lennon hopes the short break from competitive action will help soothe aching limbs and tired minds.
Celtic's involvement in the Antalya Cup means there will still be games to consider but, given they will likely be played at training pace and with hazy, winter Turkish sunshine on their backs, that should not prove too much of a hardship.
Loading article content
There may be little sympathy given Celtic's undefeated start to the league season but Lennon believes his players need rest. A campaign that began in mid-July with the first of three Champions League qualifying ties has now reached competitive game No.34. Celtic have looked flat of late, a lack of urgency on the pitch matched by a sense of weariness in the stands. There was always likely to be a dip once Celtic exited Europe and Lennon believes the tiredness is physical as much as mental. A break, away from Scotland and its incessant rain, he feels, will do his players the world of good.
"People underestimate the effort put in to Europe but it was huge," he said. "But I don't know how many games the players have won in a row now; maybe five, six, or seven, and seven clean sheets so we can't do much more apart from maybe scoring more goals.
"A few of them are running on fumes at the minute. I think that there's a definite tiredness. They looked really leggy in the last 20 minutes, half an hour [against Partick Thistle on Wednesday] mentally as well as physically. So with having the extra day I expect us to have a little bit more about us against St Mirren, which we will need. I want to get over this game and then give them a chance to recover and I think we'll see a really good second half of the season."
Maintaining their unbeaten league run has also proved taxing. "A lot of teams are really up for breaking the record [attempt]," added Lennon. "They want that scalp. That might weigh on the players' minds as well, playing with a little less freedom, not wanting to give anything away because they want to preserve the record. That's something we'll need to talk about over the course of the week."
Lennon continues to search for a new centre forward but two familiar ones have been back at Lennoxtown this week. Tony Watt has returned from his loan spell with Lierse during the Belgian winter break, with Lennon still to decide whether to leave the 20 year-old there for the rest of the season or bring him back early. "I spoke to Tony on Saturday. He came back from injury and came off the bench to score a couple of goals for Lierse in their last game before the winter break in Belgium. He looks well. He has been training here the last couple of days and seems happy enough.
"We might bring him back yet, that's a decision I need to talk about this month. Sometimes it takes time adjusting to a different environment, it might be a homesickness thing. But he seems to have been made more aware of what he has here, as well as the opportunity he has in Belgium. He is ready to play, whether it is with us or Lierse."
Mo Bangura was another back after a stint abroad, the forward's loan at Elfsborg now at an end. Bangura will not travel with the rest of the squad to Turkey due to visa restrictions but Lennon believes he could yet add something to his squad. "Bangura was back for the first time today," he said. "I think he is determined to make his mark here because he hasn't done that. He's played on loan twice so we're hoping that experience has improved him, getting him some game time. Hopefully he can add something to what we've got."
Meanwhile, Galatasaray, one of Celtic's opponents alongside Ajax and Trabzonspor in the Antyala Cup, are threatening to withdraw from the competition. The Turkish side are thought to be unhappy with the proposed distribution of television rights.