When the SPL fixtures were released on June 18, Celtic found out they would be playing "Club 12" today. At the time that could have meant Rangers or – as events transpired – hastily promoted Dundee. The significance of the date did not seem to come as a surprise to manager Neil Lennon when it was put to him yesterday. It was as if, in a quiet recent moment, he had given it some thought.
He was asked if he missed the drama and hype of playing Rangers. "From a manager's point of view it is a pretty stressful build-up so you don't miss that. But obviously you miss the occasion and the energy. After playing Benfica it would have been two fantastic occasions one after another. But this is where we are."
By that he meant another opponent in blue, Dundee. The seemingly inescapable comedown suffered by most clubs after midweek Champions League football doubtless will be evident in some form when Celtic take on the team sitting at the bottom of the Clydesdale Bank Premier League. Celtic already have dropped seven points from the 15 available, winning only two of their first five games and, unthinkably, sitting outside the division's top four.
Celtic are in an unusual position: simultaneously complacent and spilling points all over the place. Playing in the aftermath of a Champions League match will only increase the likelihood of things feeling flat at Parkhead this afternoon, but Lennon will demand a victory. "I know from experience these games, after the heady atmosphere of a Champions League night, are more difficult," he said.
"I want to see some Ws [wins] in the column on a more consistent basis and I have made that plain to the players. In the aftermath of last week we got a good reaction on Wednesday and I want another one tomorrow. I'd like to win most of the games before the Spartak Moscow game."
Dundee, Raith Rovers in the Scottish Communities League Cup in midweek and then Motherwell away must be negotiated before the resumption of Champions League duty in Russia. The immediate priority for the champions is to stabilise their league form after a draw against Hibernian and defeat at St Johnstone.
The reduced level of concentration and energy deployed in the domestic games so far has been evident from the fact Celtic have conceded only one goal in five European ties compared to seven conceded in five league games. "If we could put our finger on that it would solve all our problems," said Kelvin Wilson. "It will come good in the SPL. Getting to the Champions League was massive but now we are there we can concentrate more on the SPL as well."
Wilson has been one of the quiet successes of Celtic's season so far. The 27-year-old's confidence deserted him last season, his first at the club after joining from Nottingham Forest, but he has looked more assured in the current campaign and made some timely interventions against Benfica. Supporters were anxious when the ball came to him against the Portuguese, but his play was reassuring. "It's hard to take the crowd in because the game is still going on and you're still playing," he said. "I think I remember one moment where the ball was coming over and I heard everyone at the same time going 'ooooh' but I knew where the opponent was, so I can tell everyone I knew what I was doing."
Wilson had difficulty settling in to life in Scotland last season and played poorly in a couple of high-profile occasions: the first Old Firm game and the League Cup final against Kilmarnock. But off-field issues have been resolved and his pace and tackling have allowed him to emerge as the player Celtic believed they were signing in the first place.
Had he considered leaving the club in the close season? "I think you lot thought that: I was reading in the papers that I was going home. No, I have signed a long contract here so it was never about me leaving, not this soon anyway. I am delighted I am still here and playing in the Champions League and in the SPL as champions."
He fell out of favour in the latter part of last season but has emerged as an established choice at the moment, or at least as close as any defender gets to being established under Lennon. The Celtic manager is content to choose his central defensive partnership from any pairing of Wilson, Charlie Mulgrew, Mikael Lustig, Thomas Rogne, Victor Wanyama and, from now on, Efe Ambrose, who could make his debut today. "It's not a foregone conclusion that we have a settled partnership," said Lennon. "We kept 25 clean sheets last year even when we were deemed to have defensive problems. I think that's a bit of a myth."
Lustig is out of today's game and Miku is also likely to miss out because of a muscle strain. Biram Kayal and Joe Ledley are likely to return to training tomorrow while Georgios Samaras is a week away from training and Anthony Stokes will not return until late November at the earliest. But Paddy McCourt and Gary Hooper are fit and Ambrose is in the squad for the first time.
Contextual targeting label: