In January I shared a concern with a Newco fan. At the time, they were four points clear, both teams had a game before meeting at Celtic Park. My worry was that Newco could go into the game knowing that whatever the result, they would still be top of the league.
They could hope of moving well clear at the top, and concerns contained to nothing more than a reduced lead. A disastrous display in Dingwall combined with a 10-man-inspired Liel Abada winner two hours later turned the psychological tables. Celtic went top with a win over Newco, an oppertunity they took and never let go.
Celtic and a hardy band of 700 followers go to Ibrox on Monday with a 9-point lead. Defeat would do little damage to their heavily odds-on favourites status, whereas a win would put them out of sight. I doubt this game will determine the outcome of the title (on this question, the win at Hibs may be more important), but a win, or even a draw, would be an important determinant in our squad planning for the remainder of the season.
Newco mostly attack down their right, through Tavenier’s overload. Daizen Maeda was a successful counter to this at Ibrox in April, pushing Tavenier back. He seems a perfect fit on our left flank. Jota has been out of the starting line-up recently as he recuperates from illness. He is our most valuable talent and now fit. Will he start on the right? You may think so, but if Ange Postecoglou watches reruns of our recent encounters with Newco he will recall how Abada torments Newco left back Barasic.
The final decision may come down to the fitness of Jota. He is unlikely to play 90 minutes, I think Abada will get the nod.
With Josip Juranovic certain to return at right back, Ange must decide which two join Callum McGregor in central mid. Reo Hatate and Matt O’Riley are the settled selection, but you have seen Aaron Mooy’s recent influence. At an away game where Celtic can afford to be patient, a McGregor-Mooy partnership sounds like it could control that crucial area of the field.
Whatever the league table tells you, Newco will be strong and ready for the challenge. They suffered earlier in the season through injuries, in particular at central defence. Goldson and Davies are both back and better than those playing there recently.
Barasic and Tavernier have been exposed by successive Celtic teams, so there are areas for us to exploit where they are weak, but their core is robust and twice last spring did well against Celtic. Jack, Lundstram, Kent and Morelos will let Celtic know they are not on home turf. This is a battle we will need to win if our devastatingly good forwards are to be given chances.
My greatest fear is a random ball-to-arm inside the Celtic box. We appear to be in a lawless era of the game, which never bodes well for Celtic. My random hope is that the Charge against Allan McGregor as a hasbeen is confirmed by a costly error.