By Lewis Michie
As Brendan Rodgers prepares his Celtic side to travel to Pittodrie, for a top of the table clash with Aberdeen on Wednesday, the Northern Irishman may be contemplating whether he is dealing with his toughest spell since arriving at Celtic Park.
Arriving at the beginning of the 2016/17 season, questions regarding whether Rodgers is facing a challenging period may seem silly when glancing at their recent results.
With such a perfect track record however, without even so much as a single loss in domestic competition, it doesn’t take much to qualify for that moniker.
Draws with both Hibernian and St Johnstone in league competition – both at home – thrashings in the Champions League at the hands of Bayern Munich and Paris Saint German, hectic fixture build-up and with a troubling injury list – could Derek Mcinnes’ Aberdeen hand Rodgers his first domestic loss under the flood lights in the granite city?
When a team is on a long run of games without losing, there is bound to be some close calls. Both St Johnstone and Hibernian held leads against the Premiership champions, at Celtic park, until the 80th minute in the past two months. On both occasions Callum McGregor struck to maintain Rodgers’ unbeaten domestic start as Celtic boss.
Both of these matches shared similar occurrences. In both fixtures Celtic were unable to field what most fans would describe as their best XI. This was down to a combination of injury troubles and a congested fixture list, forcing the former Liverpool manager into resting his star players for massive Champions League ties.
Injuries have certainly proven an issue for Rodgers in his defence. Right back Mikael Lustig has had fitness problems, and has also found himself deputising, when fit, at centre back. This has mainly been down to injuries for Bosnian Jozo Simunovic and Danish centre-back partner Erik Sviatchenko – these complications have led to midfielder Nir Bitton also filling in at centre half.Embed from Getty Images
Celtic’s injury problems are probably enough of a headache for Rodgers. Such a situation coming within a run stuffed full of important games must only worsen that headache.
After hosting Dundee, Celtic travelled to Germany to face Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich, exactly a week before they will find themselves at Pittodrie.
A 3-0 loss must have been painful enough for the Hoops, but having to pick themselves up and face Neil Lennon’s Hibernian at Hampden, on Saturday, couldn’t have made it any easier.
A final score of 4-2 in the League Cup semi-final may not tell the whole story, but it certainly appears to be an energy consuming experience.
It won’t get any easier for Rodgers’ squad as they host Kilmarnock just three days after travelling to Aberdeen, only to host Bayern Munich three days following that. It’s this gruelling fixture list that must have Aberdeen’s tails up.
While Celtic have been swamped with game time – drawing their attention and physical energy here, there and everywhere – Aberdeen have had the opposite.
Derek Mcinnes has had 11 days since his squad’s victory over Hibernian to prepare his players for their toughest test yet.
As mentioned, in a run of games without a loss, there can be close calls. Celtic may not regard the Scottish Cup final in May as a close call – in fact without Tom Rogic’s last minute winner their unbeaten run wouldn’t have come to an end, but the final would have gone to extra time.
That is why Aberdeen will view that match as a close call, and that is why Derek Mcinnes, and certainly the Dons supporters, will want to avenge that heartbreak at Hampden.
Last season saw Aberdeen walk away with absolutely nothing from six games against Celtic. In some of those games the Dons were simply dominated and never looked like taking anything.
The first league meeting of the two in August 2016, that finished 4-1, and the 3-0 thrashing in the League Cup final are prime examples of this.
However, Derek Mcinnes and his squad will know that in some of those fixtures they could have, and maybe should have, taken more – possibly even more so than the sucker punch of the Scottish Cup final.Embed from Getty Images
In October, the first of two games between the pair at Pittodrie last season, was separated only by a Tom Rogic piece of brilliance.
Once again just a solitary goal separated the two at Celtic Park in February and then, after an awful opening ten minutes at Pittodrie in early May, the reds responded with a fantastic Johnny Hayes goal and an onslaught that, on another day with a slice of fortune, may have set up a more nervous finish for the treble winners.
It was that onslaught that gave Aberdeen the confidence to walk onto the Hampden pitch, ahead of the curtain closer for the Scottish season, with a new game plan. Mcinnes set up his side with far more attacking intent and a belief they could push Celtic to the limit.
That tactical set up and drive saw a lot of Aberdeen supporters leave Glasgow dejected, but with a sense of pride that their side looked to bring the game to Celtic. A polar opposite from the stand-offish display their players had presented some months earlier for the League Cup final.
Now many supporters are excited at the prospect of a similar tactical outlook being put into practice by their new look squad. Additions of Stevie May, Gary Mackay-Steven, Greg Stewart and Kari Arnason, among others, has given the Dandies the belief that they now have a side even better equipped to play this way.
That belief is shown with ticket sales getting off to a fantastic start, and Aberdeen officials expecting their Pittodrie home to be sold out for the clash between the sides, both undefeated in the league.
A pessimistic point of view may be to question whether, even with a win, Aberdeen really have any chance of mounting a title challenge on a side that finished 30 points ahead of them last term.
The realistic answer to that is, without a minor miracle, no.Embed from Getty Images
Derek Mcinnes will know that if he was ever going to lead an Aberdeen team to the title, his best chance was likely two seasons previously against Ronny Deila’s underwhelming Hoops.
Nonetheless, Mcinnes likely set out this season with an aim of beating the likes of Rangers to second place. The longer his side keeps within touching distance with Celtic, the more likely a second place finish will be.
In addition to this, should the Dons win on Wednesday evening, there won’t be many Dandies leaving Pittodrie without convincing themselves that their team can somehow pip Celtic to the title.
After all, what is football without blind hope?