Celtic are still in the hunt for this Clydesdale Bank Premier League on the basis that the run-in could still deliver a twist as painful for Walter Smith as the one suffered by Neil Lennon in Inverness on Wednesday night.
No-one need be in any doubt about where the initiative lies now though. Just 48 hours ago, Celtic had looked like the probable champions; now they face inquiries about what’s gone wrong.
They have lost only two league games in almost six months. Their goal difference is the best in the league. Their defence is the best in the country -- on paper, at least, if not on Inverness Caledonian Thistle’s grass. They have lost only two of seven Old Firm games this season.
That all seems good, but it won’t be good enough to deny Rangers a third consecutive title unless the defending champions drop points against Hearts, Kilmarnock or Motherwell. The trophy was in Celtic’s hands and they fumbled it.
A season of improvement and evolution under Lennon has contained many highs, but suddenly it is their slips and stumbles which appear significant. They have dropped points to seven of the 11 teams they’ve faced in the league, including the bottom club, Hamilton Academical, and all of the others in the top six.
There was a run of five games over November and December when they took six points from an available 18 against Hearts, St Mirren, Dundee United, Inverness and Kilmarnock. How costly do those results look now?
What about Georgios Samaras’s inability to beat Allan McGregor with a late penalty in the goalless Old Firm game at Ibrox last month? None of these looked pivotal at the time but, when added together, they have combined to leave Celtic behind a Rangers team who have been -- by a fraction -- more consistent.
Celtic started the term with eight straight league wins. Despite a sense that they have had most of the division’s outstanding performers, and the deepest squad, it is a run they have been unable to repeat over the past seven months. For all the talk of threadbare, impoverished, ageing, stagnant Rangers, Smith’s team have won games.
On the morning of February 20, Kris Commons said Celtic were younger, fitter and better than Rangers and that afternoon they seemed to prove it by winning a derby 3-0. There was clear daylight between the clubs and Celtic were on course for the title.
Although Rangers had a couple of games in hand, Celtic were eight points clear and 14 better off in terms of goal difference. It’s all changed now. Rangers are a point ahead and Celtic’s goal difference is better by only four. Quietly, Rangers have eaten into Celtic’s lead over the past 10 weeks and now it has been rubbed out altogether.
Celtic’s only league defeats since then have come on poor pitches at Motherwell and Inverness. That sounds simplistic -- and takes no account of the qualities of Stuart McCall and Terry Butcher’s teams -- but it is a criticism of Celtic rather than an excuse for them. Champions have to deal with all conditions and opponents over a season and Lennon should be troubled by the thought that his men can be knocked out of their stride simply by being asked to play on a poor pitch.
Defeat in a football match is at the lower end of the stresses the Celtic manager has had to deal with in recent months but, still, no-one could be sure how he would react to losing to Inverness. That kick at the rack of drinks containers -- a dream of an image for the photographers -- captured his fury, but once again he was frank, clear-headed and unsparing when it came to criticising the players who had let him down.
He didn’t need to name every one of them but Daniel Majstorovic, Charlie Mulgrew, Mark Wilson and Emilio Izaguirre were all dismissed as having been “poor” on the night. Kelvin Wilson will arrive in the summer and the manager must now consider whether to buy a second new centre-half and form a new partnership altogether.
Celtic could not deal with the physical strength and directness of Inverness. Crosses worried them, highlighting an issue Lennon has flagged up before, namely a lack of height in the team. Neither of his full-backs or the midfield four of Biram Kayal, Scott Brown, Shaun Maloney and Commons could offer height to help their centre-halves defending corners and free-kicks.
Worse, there was too little protection for the defenders when the Highlanders ran at them. Supporters have criticised his team selection over the past 24 hours, but essentially the same players have won done well all season.
Lennon explained he had removed Anthony Stokes and Gary Hooper during the game because neither was offering much. In his first 11 appearances of the season Hooper scored 11 times; in his last 11 games he has managed only four.
He has gone off the boil. Stokes scored nine times over seven consecutive appearances in January and February; he has scored only twice in his last 11 outings. They were both poor in Inverness. Commons’ 12 goals since arriving in January have kept them in the hunt.
It never rains but it pours. There was confirmation yesterday that Kayal will be out for the remaining games after breaking his right wrist during Wednesday evening’s game.
He will require an operation and then two to three months of rehabilitation. That means that at Kilmarnock on Sunday, Lennon must carve out a win without Kayal, Joe Ledley, and the suspended Stokes and Samaras.
Not only players are missing now though. The initiative and the momentum has been lost too.