The champions were back in action at Paradise for the first time since clinching their sixth consecutive league championship. A healthy crowd turned up for Wednesday night’s title party celebrations against Partick Thistle but were ultimately left surprised by the 1-1 scoreline which the visitors more than merited.
It’s a result that keeps the objective of an undefeated treble intact but the Jags sensed the Bhoys drop a gear and pounced on it in the second half. In fact, they could have left Celtic Park with all three points such was the nature of the second period which swung from end to end. While the Hoops dominated the first 45 and looked comfortable, they were anything but after Ade Azeez pegged them back in the 64th minute as the game could have gone either way.
Despite expecting another win the result isn’t exactly disappointing for the supporters but with a Scottish Cup semi-final tie with Rangers on the horizon, better performances will be expected against Kilmarnock and Ross County in the next fortnight to set the Celts up nicely for the most important derby of the season. That means making less changes to the starting XI in the coming weeks.
Brendan Rodgers admitted after securing the league at Tynecastle that: “You have to be careful (about making changes) because you can lose momentum and rhythm.” He also told Sky Sports: “You have to go into a game like that (versus Rangers) with momentum. There won’t be any less focus or concentration now, if anything it ramps up even more.”
On Wednesday Rodgers made five changes to his side bringing in Cristian Gamboa, Emilio Izaguirre and Eboue Kouassi from the cold while also handing starts to Erik Sviatchenko and Nir Bitton. The Northern Irishman also changed the shape of the team, opting for a 3-4-3 rather than the successful 4-2-3-1. It’s understandable that Rodgers took the opportunity to rest key individuals, give others valuable game time and make a tactical tweak for a midweek encounter just a few days after wrapping up six in a row.
But as is often the case when such changes are made, there wasn’t the same flow to the performance and in the second half there definitely wasn’t the same level of control Celtic usually have when winning 1-0 as Thistle made the hosts backline jittery. At full-time Rodgers defended his team selection saying: “After the weekend our next peak is the semi final. So that’s what we are building towards. This is why I needed to make the changes tonight. If I didn’t make them tonight and I made them against Kilmarnock, and then we are building into the Ross County game and then the Rangers games.” He also admitted that early changes in the second half did “disrupt” things for the team.
Among the positives were the display of teenager Kouassi who looked at ease for the 62 minutes he was on the pitch and the return of Tom Rogic after a few months on the sidelines. The Hoops faithful are hopeful that Rodgers will give more minutes to both during the next couple of weeks albeit for different reasons. Kouassi needs as much time as possible to get used to the Scottish game in order to really take off next season while Rogic could still have a major role to play in the Scottish Cup especially with Moussa Dembele and Leigh Griffiths carrying knocks that may force them out of the showdown with the Gers.
The key thing over the next two weeks, though, must be finding the balance between maintaining momentum and protecting the main figures who will play against Rangers. The likes of Scott Sinclair, Stuart Armstrong, Scott Brown, Kieran Tierney and Mikael Lustig need to play against Killie and County in order to keep the stability of the side given their excellent form. The last thing Celtic want is to needlessly slip-up or lose the unbeaten streak because of an overly rotated line-up that puts a seed of doubt in their minds.
Instead, keeping the core of the side in place with those in need of more game time or a few youngsters around them best serves the team for the remainder of the campaign which the fans dream will include a Scottish Cup final to complete the treble. That’s also why Rodgers should use the 4-2-3-1 formation the team is familiar with rather than experiment with a shape that the players don’t have enough time to respond to with fluid displays.
The Bhoys will need to be fresh and in top form at Hampden to make that treble dream a reality.