Strachan's Celtic Plot Steady Course to Trophies
The CIS Insurance Cup, like all League Cups, is denuded of importance these days, but it has still provided useful milestones for Gordon Strachan's turbulent first year as Celtic manager. There was the rousing victory over Rangers in November's quarter-final, which seemed to provide the evidence that Strachan's 'difficult' opening weeks in charge had been consigned to painful memory. Then, in the semi-final at the beginning of February, Celtic struggled to get past Motherwell - a dire performance which, on top of the ignominious defeat to Clyde in the Scottish Cup and a 3-3 home draw against Dundee United, betrayed a team which was still deeply flawed and struggling to fulfil their manager's vision.
Last Sunday's victory over an admittedly limited Dunfermline Athletic came at the end of a difficult week for the club following the sad death of Jimmy Johnstone, but after a hugely satisfactory six weeks on the field, and demonstrated that the manager has gotten his team onto a very steady course which sees them as comfortably the country's top side.
The key to Celtic's improvement in recent weeks comes in the form of the new arrivals at the club in January, and in the timely return of a familiar face. Firstly, for all Roy Keane's recent complaints about his gammy hip and the possibility of his career coming to an end this summer, the Irishman has been a hugely influential performer for Celtic. Keane's presence - particularly in the home victory over Aberdeen and the 1-0 triumph over Rangers in February - has brought a general improvement in the players around him, and his desire to take responsibility in an attacking sense has been a crucial part of Celtic's recent good form, especially as it was thought that his best offensive days were behind him.
For all that Keane is benefitting from a less intense level of football, and from the covering presence of Neil Lennon in midfield, his quality and presence remain timeless, and his trademark ability to dictate the pace of a game is still unmistakable. That said, the only wobble in Celtic's form of late came in the first half against Hibs (by no coincidence the match after which Keane bemoaned the ravages of time on his body, having been given the runaround by Hibs' youthful midfielders), a game which turned when Stilian Petrov's younger legs were brought back to augment those of the grizzled veterans in the middle. Keane and Lennon's vintage means that the issue of succession of the central midfield lynchpins will be one that Strachan will have to address sooner rather than later, particularly if Keane carries through on his threat of retirement.
Celtic's second piece of new year shopping was the recruitment of Mark Wilson from Dundee United. A right-back by trade, his insertion into the troublesome left-back position seemed at first another square peg-round hole solution to a problem which Mo Camara and Ross Wallace had failed to address in their spells in that berth. Wilson, however, has been a revelation and has helped to steady a defence which had gone twelve games without a clean sheet, as well as bringing a natural footballing ability to his attacking contributions, developing a good understanding with Shaun Maloney in front of him.
The reversion of the Celtic defence to more miserly ways is also blatantly attributable to the return of Bobo Balde from the African Nations Cup in Egypt, at which he spent most of January. The Guinean colossus' form since his return has been excellent, a mirror opposite of the malaise that afflicted him long after his return from the 2004 African tournament.
Finally, the addition of Dion Dublin. The deadline day signature of the veteran striker caused the raising of some eyebrows amongst the Parkhead faithful, seeing an over-the-hill Leicester City cast-off as hardly the sort of signing a club of Celtic's stature should be making. While Dublin's on-field contribution has been limited to scoring the late third in Sunday's triumph, his presence and enthusiasm around the club has been the subject of much praise. He is also - like Paul Telfer - a disciple of Strachan's from previous incarnations and has been generally an all-round positive presence in the camp.
It is only a matter of time now before Celtic seal the league title, after a race which began as tussle but is ending in a procession. Strachan deserves to take much satisfaction from the way he has ridden out and reacted to the troublesome moments of his first season at Parkhead, but will be more than aware of that this term has been only a preparation for the big challenges of next year - namely the probable return to Champions League action, and more definitely, the resurgence of Rangers under new manager Paul Le Guen.