Avoiding knockout blow in early rounds carries heavy weight for Lennon and Celtic

IS THE next meaningful date in Celtic's calendar really July 15?

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James Forrest netted winner against Shakhter Karagandy in play-off
James Forrest netted winner against Shakhter Karagandy in play-off

Has the Hoops' season now been condensed down to six matches?

Two questions which are worth exploring after Scott Brown and Co. crashed out of the William Hill Scottish Cup last weekend.

With a 21-point advantage in the championship, no bookie in the land would lay a bet against Neil Lennon's side making it three titles in a row.

Indeed, despite Dons boss Derek McInnes vowing to push the Parkhead club much harder next season, it would be tough to find anyone willing to bet on it not becoming four-in-a-row.

With 14 games still to go this time around, Celtic can afford to lose six of them and will still lift the biggest prize available in Scottish football.

Given that they have not been defeated thus far, that is not going to happen. It is very much a case of when, not if, they cross the finishing line to lift their crown.

The challenge of, firstly, trying to extend their 11-game clean sheet record in the league, then trying to remain unbeaten through the 38-match campaign will replace some of the interest which has been lost because of the lead they have built up.

There is also the chance to set a new points record. That currently stands at 103, from season 2001-02 when Lennon was a major player in the Martin O'Neill side which lost only once in the championship race that term.

Of course, the snipers will shoot holes in any title won post-Rangers implosion.

And, on the eve of the second anniversary of the Ibrox club going into administration before, ultimately, going into liquidation, anything Celtic win these days will be subject to the accusation they are capitalising on the competition void which is now perceived to exist.

However, Rangers were not in the top division last season, yet Celtic managed to accrue only 79 points - the lowest-ever winning tally in the history of the SPL.

So, to already be within a few wins of surpassing that mark while playing against almost entirely the same set of clubs as the previous campaign confirms Lennon and his players have improved, in terms of consistency, if nothing else.

That will be some consolation to a manager who demands progress year on year, and who will be bracing himself for the accusation that this has been a poorer season than last because they will only collect one trophy compared the league-cup double of last term, which sat proudly alongside the achievement of reaching the last 16 of the Champions League.

Therein sits the paradox, because the form in the league shows how consistent Celtic have been this season, yet their exits from both cups before the quarter-final stages, and their disappointing display in the group stage of the Champions League, shows that when the chips have been down, they have been unable to roll the dice effectively.

This is all being played out against the backdrop of financial statements which, to paraphrase chief executive, Peter Lawwell, shows the club to be in its strongest ever position.

The pre-tax profits of over £21million have been generated despite having to heavily discount season tickets, and play to a half-empty stadium.

The half-term report left no one in any doubt about how important it is for the club to participate in the Champions League, even if, before a ball is kicked each year, their business plan is based on them only reaching the group stage of the Europa League, where the income is around an eighth of that enjoyed in the premier competition.

More than the £15m or so which qualifying for the Champions League brings, participation also helps the club attract better players.

This, in turn, plays to the vital part of the business plan which relies on recruiting raw talent, developing it, giving it a stage on which to display its quality and in so doing attract multi-million-pound offers.

As recent transfer windows have shown, even this carrot is not always enough to convince targets that Parkhead is a viable option. But with no Champions League, it would be infinitely tougher to lure real quality.

Which brings us back to the initial premise, that the four qualifying ties and two play-offs are the most important games in the season. Because of what is on the line, they not only define the campaign, they also create the greatest tension and excitement.

Which is why, while Lennon will demand his players keep their eye on the ball, even he will already be looking forward to their vital mini-season, which kicks off on July 15/16 with the first leg of their second qualifying round and ends on August 26/27 when the second leg of the play-offs are contested.

That's now the real red-letter day in Celtic's calendar.

Football

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