Mjallby: Winter break is perfect after games marathon

AFTER playing 30 games in five months across four different competitions and half of Europe, a staging post is at last coming into view for Neil Lennon and his players.

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Johan Mjallby is convinced batteries will be recharged by Celtic's Turkey trip
Johan Mjallby is convinced batteries will be recharged by Celtic's Turkey trip

Four more matches to go -starting at Perth on Boxing Day - and they can enjoy a much-needed change of pace as they swap the cold chill of a Scottish January for the relative warmth of Antalya in Turkey.

The fact they will keep ticking over and have the chance to try a few ideas in games against Trazbonspor, then either Ajax or Galatasaray, is a bonus.

The real benefit will be the detachment from what has been non-stop competitive action which kicked off on July 17, while most other teams in these parts were just reporting back for pre-season training.

Of course, everyone would benefit from time off in the depth of winter, and there has been predictable criticism the league leaders are abusing their position by activating the option of stepping away from SPFL action at this juncture.

But given the Hoops have been flying the flag for Scotland in Europe through a dozen games, the fact is they ARE an exceptional case.

Besides, falling another game behind - as they did in week two of the SPFL when they went to Dublin to play Liverpool rather than meet St Mirren - might keep this title race going for a little bit longer.

The bad news for the other 11 teams in the SPFL, and those retaining an interest in wresting the Scottish Cup from the Parkhead trophy cabinet, is that assistant boss, Johan Mjallby, believes they will return from their break even better.

It's not so much that tired limbs will have been rested, but that cerebral faculties will have been allowed to recharge.

"Especially mentally, we need a break because we have already had so many games," said the Swede.

"We still have a few more coming up before this week in Turkey.

"We have a good target to go unbeaten until then, and that's going to be really important for us.

"You can't expect everyone to stay fit, or to always have the same starting XI with all the games we have coming up in a short space of time.

"But, we need a break, especially mentally, because, by the time January arrives, some of these guys will have played 30-plus games."

The absence of any European games in the new year is, of course, a source of much disappointment to everyone at the club.

The cold, dark months of mid-winter were tholed last term because there was a mid-season break and the prospect of last-16 ties against Juventus.

Now it's the chance to bag another league and Scottish Cup double which must keep the fire in their bellies.

They are three games away from retaining the cup, but a few more than that from making it a third league title in a row.

The target is to get this tied up as quickly as possible, and a continuation of the form which has seen them go 16 matches in the SPFL without defeat and 10 points clear with a game in hand, would see them on course to cross the finishing line before the split.

The biggest threat could be complacency, which is why Lennon, Mjallby and Co. keep emphasising the importance of retaining their unbeaten record in the league.

As players, they were key figures in the Martin O'Neill side which went 25 games during season 2003-04 without dropping a point.

That gave them the platform on which they built a successful challenge for the title.

But, as Mjallby explained, it did so much more for the group of players who learned how to work for one another and ensure they were not the one to let the side down.

The longer such a run goes, the more determined everyone becomes not to allow it to come to an end.

Mjallby reckons he can see signs of this mindset and said: "There is pressure, but it's great pressure to have.

"As I remember it, we put pressure on ourselves. There was a bit of a pride in what we were doing.

"When the record was in danger, we probably put in a couple of extra per cent effort to make sure we didn't lose it."

Mjallby can see the same pride and determination in the 2013 vintage.

The downside is that, while their domestic form - the League Cup shock exit to Morton apart - has improved significantly from last season, they have not managed to replicate their success in Europe.

However, Mjallby can detect long-term gain from this short-term pain.

"The good thing is we can see the progress this side is making," he said.

"Yes, we didn't make it through in the Champions League this year, which was very disappointing. But in the SPFL we have been much more solid and much better. Mentally, we are better off this year."

With Lennon announcing his intention to make them stronger in terms of depth of squad when the transfer window re-opens next week, the result should be a Celtic side even more difficult to derail in the second part of 2013-14.

Of course, there could also be exits next month, with the futures of Georgios Samaras and Joe Ledley up in the air after the pair declined to accept the opportunity to extend their current agreements.

Fraser Forster is another who could be headed elsewhere, if the right offer comes in for the man concerned about retaining his spot in the England squad.

There is nothing Celtic can do to prevent other parties from making their interest known in players who have made such a good impression on the European stage.

But no-one at Parkhead is about to cut their nose off to spite their face.

Which means that, despite the fact they will be free to speak to prospective new employers from a week today, Samaras and Ledley will continue to be asked to earn their wages by playing in the Hoops side.

Mjallby has no fears they will be 100 per cent professional about it and said: "How I understand it, there are offers on the table for them.

"Obviously, we want them to come back as soon as possible with an answer so we know if they want to be here or if we need to start looking for replacements.

"That's how it is now. We need to look further ahead to see if we can build a team.

"If they are not going to be here, then we will probably go for other players."

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