The team have won only three out of the last 12 domestic tournaments, and glory has become a fleeting companion. “Every competition is worth the winning,” says Neil Lennon, but the manager’s words sound more like an admonishment than a statement.
In the Scottish Communities League Cup quarter-final tonight, Celtic will look to reassert a sense of authority that for much of this campaign has carried all the substance of an empty threat. There have been signs of progress in their last three matches, but the circumstances still look like a litany of the team’s insecurities as opposed to a cause for optimism,
Celtic were three down to Kilmarnock before two goals in quick succession by Anthony Stokes prompted a revival to 3-3.
In Rennes last Thursday, Celtic fell behind again, but rallied to draw 1-1; and against Aberdeen last Sunday, it took a moment of resourcefulness from Charlie Mulgrew, when he skelped a shot high into the net from close range, to establish the 2-1 lead that Celtic held on to.
Still, supplying the context seems like a case of griping when the mood around Lennoxtown, the club’s training ground, has settled on being guardedly hopeful.
“I thought it was turning anyway, but we need to start winning games,” says Gary Hooper of the team’s form. “Everyone is thinking that [there is an opportunity to win the League Cup] but we’ve got to take it game by game.
“This is tough, away to Hibs. We need to go one better than last year in this cup. But the main thing is getting through. From Sunday, we’re very confident and we’ve got to take that into the game. Everyone’s expecting us to be at the top again. We’ve got to grind through every game and play our game instead of the other team’s.”
Hooper remains an emblem of this Celtic side. Some of his displays last season touched upon the irresistible, and the impression left was of a striker able to call upon the touch, instincts and burst of acceleration to bracket him among the leading English forwards of his generation.
But Hooper has been diminished this season by an injury that seemed to rob him of the explosive surges of intent that had become the hallmark of his game.
He claims to be fully fit now but, against Aberdeen, he allowed a cross curled into the six-yard box with venomous pace by James Forrest to flash in front of him. The nagging suspicion was that, last season, Hooper would have taken the chance without blinking. Celtic Park duly gave vent to a collective growl of exasperation.
“I feel good,” Hooper says. “My ankle’s getting stronger. I don’t think there’s any pressure, but the injury didn’t help. You feel your way back, but in training I’ve been doing a lot of fitness and a lot of balance, and it’s been going well.
“I need to get on the scoresheet and keep going, to get a run of form. I don’t think [the injury has] held me back. But I’ve got to just keep going and take my chances.”
Celtic are still playing like a team that expects the next misfortune to be imminent. Each game is approached in a spirit of endurance, and it will require a succession of positive results to force this hesitant mood into exile.
A growing demand for treatment in the physio’s room adds to the sense of dismay, and Lennon must feel as though opponents are enlisting fate, in its grimmest mood, as an unlikely 12th man.
There is little chance of him succumbing to a bout of pessimism. When asked about the impression left by Alex Milosevic, a young Swede who was on trial last January, Lennon had to search his mind for a recollection, before saying, doubtfully, “a centre-forward?” When reminded that he is a centre-back, the Celtic manager quickly replied, “then he’s in.”
Lennon’s capacity for humour only partially conceals the responsibility he feels to himself and the club. Every Celtic manager is obliged to be ruthless when it comes to the business of winning trophies, and the League Cup is an opportunity to establish some old convictions.
It was the first competition Lennon won as a Celtic player, and the memory of losing last season’s final to Rangers continues to nag at him.
“It’s a big game in the context of what we want to do domestically, we want to get to the final and go one better than last year,” Lennon says of tonight’s game at Easter Road. “Psychologically, that would be great, but there’s still a lot of work to be done before then. It’s an important competition and it could be a morale booster if we won and then we’ve got a semi-final to look forward to. We’ll be putting out as strong a team as possible.”
FC Sion will discover next month whether or not they are to throw Celtic’s Europa League group into confusion by being reinstated into the competition.
UEFA yesterday confirmed that the Court of Arbirtration of Sport will hear the Swiss side’s final appeal against their expulsion on November 24.
Sion are also hoping to sign Italy’s World Cup winner Alessandro Del Piero, who will end his 17-year stay with Juventus in the summer.