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Shiftless Celtic stumble towards success

31 January 2013

By Nicol Hay

If there’s one skill in Georgios Samaras’ possession that can be said to be definitively world-class, it is his incredible range of bewildered expressions. There’s something about the combination of his large brown eyes, pouting lips and general air of boyish innocence that forms a face seemingly permanently unaware of what is happening in the general vicinity of Georgios, and why.

The Greek striker was able to put the full gamut of his nonplussed features to use in Celtic’s lethargic 3-2 loss to St Mirren in the semi-final of the Scottish Communities League Cup on Sunday. As the Glasgow side piled futility on top of futility – as through-balls clattered out of play off of unheeding shins, as routine passes became wild explorations into the remotest parts of the Hampden turf, as Celtic as a whole became a vivid illustration of Dr Ian Malcolm’s theories of inherent chaos in unregulated systems – Samaras looked more and more like a child struggling to comprehend why the Mini Eggs he planted in the garden have not grown into a chocolate tree.

While it is tempting to suggest that Celtic’s poor performance on Sunday was due to a understandable fear that winning through to Hampden Park fixture against Heart of Midlothian would simply result in a replay of the scenes witnessed last year, it would be unprofessional for me to speculate at the mental scars that Craig Beattie’s chiselled torso left on the Parkhead side. What isn’t in doubt is that this capitulation against St Mirren was simply the latest in a series of games that Celtic have conspicuously taken off this season.
We’re 23 games into the current league campaign, and already Celtic have lost four and drawn four matches, frittering away 20 points on afternoons of stifled yawns and absent effort. This would represent a fairly poor record for the leaders of any league at this stage of the season, but when you consider that Celtic dropped only 21 points in the entirety of their 2011-12 title-winning performance (the same record as Rangers in 2010-11, incidentally), this year’s vintage starts to look like a team on an intractable skid towards the doldrums.

Except they’re not. Celtic are, in fact, 12 points clear of second placed Inverness Caledonian Thistle, and are cruising to another Premier League title like Dennis Hopper on a triple-upholstered Harley. Without Rangers around to provide a credible challenge for top spot, Celtic go into every game with an unshakable belief that they are going to win. However, instead of channeling this belief into the raw grit required to strive every sinew until the winning goal is secured in the 99th minute, as the great Ferguson Manchester United sides have done, Celtic channel this belief into milling around the pitch until home time, expecting that enough goals will just somehow turn up.

What’s irritating for someone who actually tries to watch the SPL for pleasure (yes, I know – but football fandom is an incurable disease, as every Ramble reader is all too aware) is that even though the feckless Celts are often wrong in individual games, their overall record proves that their rheumy stumble through the fixture list requires no great re-think. While I’m certain that Celtic fans would prefer to win trophies than throw them away, I don’t think they’ll be overly concerned about missing the opportunity to add another League Cup to the pile as long as the larger goals of the title and Champions League respectability remain attainable.

During the Old Firm’s strongest years, Scottish fans would be told repeatedly that the lack of serious domestic challenge was fatally undermining the Glasgow teams’ continental efforts, as the mental conditioning required to leap from trampling frail Motherwell and Kilmarnock into trying to appear vaguely competent against Milan and Bayern Munich was more than anyone could be expected to handle. This year however, the highly focused discipline of European Celtic has been so distantly removed from the stifled yawns of Scottish Celtic that you have to wonder if eleven cunningly disguised ball boys aren’t giving Wanyama, Forster et al the weekends off.

If Celtic really have discovered a way to flick their concentration on and off between Champions League engagements, they’ll have to trust that the switch hasn’t rusted over during the long winter of bare-minimuming their way through their SPL obligations. Juventus are looming on the horizon, and Celtic had better hope that their approach to their domestic fixtures lies more on the ‘clever conservation of energies’ than the ‘woeful complacency’ end of the preparedness scale.

The irony is that between the shiftless and the diligent versions of Celtic 2012-13, only one of the teams is guaranteed to lift a trophy in May. Anything else would result in entire nation practising their Georgios Samaras Facial Theatre.

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