If there was ever a sign that Celtic manager Neil Lennon has taken his eye off the ball domestically in exchange for Champions League progression, it is here in the fact that his Bhoys side play a Scottish Cup Fourth Round replay away at Second Division Arbroath on Wednesday evening.
Right from the start of pre-season, Lennon made no bones about the fact that Celtic’s European campaign was the most important thing about their season, an attitude that was bought about by the demotion of bitter rivals Rangers to the Third Division: not only was the fortune on offer vital to the club without Old Firm clashes to bring money in, but the lack of competition in the Scottish Premier League meant that complete focus could be afforded to Europe safe in the knowledge that there wasn’t much to beat over the course of a full season back home.
And what a decision it was. Celtic have stormed into the last 16 of the Champions League for the first time since 2008, beating Barcelona in a glory night at Celtic Park in the process in what was Lennon’s finest hour as a manager so far.
But Celtic’s European exploits have come at a cost domestically. Nothing that they can’t recover from (they are still top of the SPL, after all) but there have been results before and after Champions League engagements that have been desperately poor – none more so than their 1-1 home draw to Arbroath in the Scottish Cup a couple of weeks ago that preceeded the win over Spartak Moscow that clinched their place in the knock-out stages of the Champions League.
With both eyes on that vital clash, Celtic were well below par and allowed Arbroath to snatch a last-gasp equaliser that they fully merited. It was a great result for Paul Sheerin, Arbroath’s player-manager, but you would think that second time around, even at Gayfield Park, Celtic will make no mistake.
The bookies at bwin certainly don’t anticipate that, making Lennon’s side the 3/25 favourites, with the draw at 13/2 and the home side at 11/1. And in truth it is hard to argue with those odds.
Complacency is Celtic’s biggest worry, but as Lennon points out they have been to Peterhead and Berwick over recent years and had no issues, and should they turn up with a professional attitude they will win with some comfort.
Because it’s not like there is much in Arbroath’s form that suggests they are capable of beating the Scottish champions. Sheerin’s side have won just two of their last ten and are languishing in fifth place in the Second Division, 16 points adrift of leaders Queen of the South.
Celtic have been very good on their travels of late, winning five of their last six away league games, scoring 18 goals in the process, and should be far, far too strong for their lower league opponents. As such, the 18/25 on over 3.5 goals is the play. That has happened in four of Arbroath’s last seven fixtures and four of Celtic’s last five domestic trips.