WITH the final post-split fixture list announced this week, Jim McIntyre believes the prize of becoming the first Scottish team to beat Celtic this season can provide extra motivation for his Ross County players as they chase an upset against the champions in Dingwall on Sunday.
Brendan Rodgers’ side have been pretty much invincible on the domestic front this season, remaining unbeaten as they chase a historic treble. Only Inverness Caley Thistle, Partick Thistle and Rangers have drawn blood from them with draws in the league.
County, with three wins and five draws from 20 meetings with the Glasgow giants, are huge underdogs in the final pre-split match of the campaign.
But McIntyre, while acknowledging that any result against Rodgers’ men would be a bonus, knows it is far from a case of mission impossible for a group of players with a proven record of performing in the bigger matches.
The County manager said: “Celtic have been fantastic this season – brilliant in what they have achieved and how they’ve done it.
“To be unbeaten in a league campaign is no mean feat, but the challenge is there for us to try to be the team that manages to go and do it.
“From that side of things, our focus when we play a top team is to get the balance right. For 80 minutes we did that very well the last time we played Celtic at Dingwall.
“We changed the system and tried to open up in the last 10 minutes to get an equaliser, but we lost three goals. That’s the quality Celtic have.
“You can set your team up any way you like but we need all our players right at it on the day, doing their jobs to the utmost and being fully focused for the 90 minutes. When you’re playing against top players like Celtic, they hurt you in a split second when you switch off.
“We’ve seen it time and time again – they have found different ways of winning games this season, even when they’ve not quite been at their best. They’ve got that quality to score goals from distance, or through individual brilliance.
“We’ve got our work cut out but we’re more than capable of getting a result.”
It could be that the biggest challenge facing Celtic – already crowned champions for the sixth year running – in the remaining games this season, is avoiding the temptation to down tools with only the Scottish Cup prize left to play for. Rodgers has set the target of finishing the campaign unbeaten as he strives to place his name up among the likes of the great Jock Stein by securing the domestic clean sweep. But it remains to be seen whether, psychologically and subconsciously, the Celtic players will drop a gear.
McIntyre will prime his players to expect a fully-motivated Parkhead side in the live televised clash.
He said: “That group of players is so focused – they’ve got two trophies in the bag and another one to fight for. Deep down they’ll want this unbeaten run to go until the end of the season – there’s no doubt about that.
“If I was a player in that squad that would be one of the aims, without a shadow of a doubt. It’s up to us to be as prepared as we possibly can, and we will be. We’ll look forward to the game.
“It’s 11 versus 11 on the day and we know if we play to our best we’ve got a chance of winning the game.
“Of course it’s a big challenge. We’ve got good players here, but we need to be fully concentrated.
“We will be ready for it. We know it’s a really difficult match. Nobody expects us to get anything but there’s an expectancy level from us that we need to put on a good performance.
“Everybody will have marked that one down as us losing the three points. That’s the kind of motivation factor for us.”
McIntyre was frustrated to take only a point from Hamilton last weekend but is pleased with the mental strength his players are showing amid the pressures of the relegation fight.
He added: “We’ve got five big games coming up after Celtic and we want to make sure we try to pick up the points. We’ve had a couple of really difficult games against teams around about us – Dundee and Hamilton – and managed to pick up four points out of six.
County hope to have defensive pillar Andrew Davies fit to face the champions despite him playing through the pain barrier with a back injury against Hamilton.
The Staggies will have to overcome an imbalance in the fixture list as they fight to ease relegation concerns in the season’s final Premiership matches.
The SPFL post-split fixture list handed the Dingwall team two more home games and three away trips in the bottom half of the table. After Sunday’s clash with Celtic, County will have played 16 home games and 17 away, leaving them with two extra games on the road for the season once the last five are accounted for.
The discrepancy – always affecting certain teams in the top-flight – is unavoidable given the arithmetic involved in the current Premiership setup.
While it will deny the club extra gate money, the heavier away problem shouldn’t be too great a concern for the Dingwall men, who have currently taken the same number of points on the road – 16 – this season as they have at home.
The draw also hands County a home Highland derby on Friday, April 28, with the match set to be televised live on BT Sport. It could well set the tone for the relegation battle to follow.
More inside this week's Ross-shire Journal