Celtic were desperate for some positivity after a torrid few months – so Christopher Jullien testing positive for coronavirus, thereby decimating the squad, wasn’t quite what they had in mind.
A week after returning from their controversial Dubai training camp, the fallout continues to be keenly felt by the Scottish champions.
A belated apology to supporters from chief executive Peter Lawwell marked an attempt to draw a line under the episode, but has done little to quell fans’ anger.
So where does the latest sequence of events leave the club and manager Neil Lennon?
From champions to a battle for second?
Having arrived back from Dubai on Friday, Celtic soon found themselves in the eye of a storm. On Sunday they reported a player – later confirmed as injured defender Jullien – had contracted coronavirus. And on Monday a further 13 squad members as well as manager Neil Lennon and his assistant Kennedy were told to quarantine.
Yet thanks to David Turnbull’s sublime free-kick the champions’ much-changed side were just three minutes away from victory over Hibs on Monday evening before familiar flaws resurfaced and a poorly defended set-piece cost an injury-time equaliser.
Added to Old Firm derby defeat, it leaves Celtic still searching for their first win of 2021. It has also effectively killed off any lingering hope of resuscitating their bid to become the first Scottish club to win 10 successive titles. Celtic’s deficit on Rangers is now 21 points, or 22 considering their vastly inferior goal difference, albeit with three games in hand. Even the optimistic Celtic fan is resigned to the trophy changing hands.
And as Rangers disappear into the distance, should Lennon’s men now be more concerned with looking over their shoulder? Celtic are five points clear of Hibs and seven above Aberdeen, having played fewer matches than both, but their inconsistency this season gives rivals hope.
“Celtic’s season has unravelled so badly that it’s now got to the situation where they need to concentrate on second spot,” says former Hibs, Hearts and Scotland midfielder Michael Stewart.
“They need to start getting points on the board to build confidence. Hibs and Aberdeen are not a million miles away and if Celtic don’t pick up the points in the next two games against Livingston, for example, then you can seriously start to question if they are in for a challenge for second.
“That’s how bad the season is becoming for Celtic.”
‘Dilemma’ over Lennon’s future
Celtic’s current instability isn’t confined to the pitch. Manager Lennon – who will again hand the reins to coach Gavin Strachan for Saturday’s game in Livingston – remains in a vulnerable position.
Lennon has spent the last few months battling to stay in the job in the eyes of many fans, and his future looks no clearer. Exits from two European competitions and the Scottish League Cup, plus trailing in the title race, prompted the board to publicly backed the manager in early December after an alarming run of two wins in 12 games.
Lennon restored some calm with six straight victories – including winning the quadruple treble – but that has been shattered by the chaotic start to 2021.
And the board’s support came with the caveat that “progress will be reviewed in the new year”. Halfway through January, there has been no message from the hierarchy over whether they intend to stick or twist.
That uncertainty is doing the club no favours, according to former Celtic goalkeeper Pat Bonner.
“They’ve got to make big decisions very quickly now,” says Bonner. “If they back Lennon, are they doing so for the next two years? Or will they make a change in the summer? That’s the dilemma they have.
“Lennon has done wonders for the club as a player and manager, but time runs out on you, especially if you end up so far behind Rangers.”
Stewart, meanwhile, believes “it’s only a matter of time” until Celtic remove Lennon from his role.
“I get the feeling the change wasn’t made in October-November because they couldn’t find somebody to come in,” he adds.
Livingston eyeing history at depleted Celtic
The last thing Celtic need now is to face a team absolutely flying in the Premiership. But that’s what they’ve got – twice – with home and away meetings with Livingston.
Celtic’s self-isolating players and management will only be available for the second of those matches – Wednesday’s trip to West Lothian.
So they muddle on with a makeshift team this weekend against a Livingston side who have a flawless record since David Martindale took charge – with eight straight wins. Six of those came in the league, with 14 goals scored and just two conceded, and Martindale’s efforts have been recognised with the Premiership manager of the month award for December.
Now Livingston are out to make history by securing their first away win over Celtic. Thirteen previous attempts over the past 20 years have yielded 12 defeats and a draw, but rarely have Livingston faced such a vulnerable home side.
Martindale is taking nothing for granted. “I was looking at Celtic’s team against Hibs and valued it at around £60m,” he said.
“They had an abundance of talent on that pitch – £60m could run my club for 60 years.”
Celtic’s hopes will again rely on the brilliance of 21-year-old Turnbull, the £3.25m summer recruit from Motherwell who has become indispensable since forcing his way into the first team last month.
“He’s a wonderful player”, says Bonner. “He’s eager for the ball, plays in between the lines, and always sees the pass. He is the bright spot for the Celtic fans and gives the club something to build on.”