Celtic midfielder Ryan Christie believes it is “too early to say” whether current leaders Kilmarnock could go on to win the Scottish Premiership.
Steve Clarke’s side leapfrogged Rangers on Wednesday to become the fourth different table-toppers this season after their 2-0 win over Livingston.
It is the first time the Ayrshire side have led the top flight beyond the first 10 games since they won the title on the final day of the 1964-65 season – they were also briefly top after nine matches in 1998.
“It is only the start of December and there is such a big run of games for everybody leading up to the winter break,” Christie noted.
“After the break, then you can start talking about it. But they have been playing very, very well and the manager there has done a fantastic job.”
Approaching 14 months since he took charge, former West Bromwich Albion and Reading boss Clarke has created a level of consistency to rival Brendan Rodgers’ reigning champions, who they face at Celtic Park on Saturday.
Since the turn of the year, Kilmarnock have amassed more points than any Premiership team, albeit they have played more matches than the two Glasgow sides.
How has Clarke transformed Killie?
When Clarke was appointed Kilmarnock manager in October 2017, they were bottom of the Premiership after failing to win any of their first eight games. He oversaw a stunning revival to lift them to a fifth-placed finish, with a record points tally, by the end of last season.
Partick Thistle goalkeeper Cammy Bell, who spent the first five months of last season at Kilmarnock, says Clarke “just breaks everything down and keeps everything so simple so the players can understand the style he wants”.
“He doesn’t give them too many instructions out on the pitch,” Bell adds. “His message is ‘don’t get beat and then you have an opportunity to win the game’.
“He’s brought in a couple of quality players – Youssouf Mulumbu last year and Greg Stewart this season. But I’d also mention Chris Burke. He didn’t know what his future held, but it is brilliant to see him back to his best.”
Former Scotland striker Steven Thompson: “They have got a great balance in the team of youth and experience. And Greg Stewart has been phenomenal. You can just see him exuding confidence, as are the rest of the players. It is brilliant.”
Former Rangers midfielder Derek Ferguson: “Clarke is making good players excellent players – and making average players good players. They have been behind in so many games this season, but they always find a way to get a result. They don’t get disappointed and their heads don’t drop.”
Former Scotland striker Billy Dodds: “The shape of his teams is pretty simple – 4-4-1-1 or 4-4-2 – and the players are responding to it. He doesn’t lose many players. He gave a few of them long contracts last year and they know the job that’s required. He’s added a bit of talent and Stewart has been outstanding.”
Kilmarnock community manager Paul Di Giacomo: “The club has been razed from top to bottom on the park and off the park. A couple of years ago, we would go into schools and a lot of kids wouldn’t know who the Kilmarnock players were. Now you go in and they can reel off the first 11 and know all the players by squad number.
“What Steve is doing with the first team makes for such a positive atmosphere. It makes everyone’s jobs easier. The manager is different class. He knows what he is doing and we trust him.”
Could Kilmarnock ‘do a Leicester’?
It is only two years since Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City famously confounded the odds by winning the English title with a playing budget dwarfed by the likes of Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United.
Once bitten, the bookmakers are shying away from offering anything like the 5,000-1 odds once available on Leicester for Kilmarnock to match that feat in Scotland, but the odds are still currently around 100-1.
Billy Dodds: “They might not win the league, but only a fool would write them off after what happened with Leicester. For Kilmarnock, with their budget, to outdo teams like Celtic, Rangers, Hearts and Aberdeen would be some feat.”
Steven Thompson: “Would I put any money on them to win it? No. But I think they will continue to push and be in that top three. I can’t see them falling away. It is making for a really competitive league, the most entertaining there has been for a long time.
“But, if Celtic don’t win the league, given their budget and the players they have, it would be a shambles for them. I still think they will win it because they will invest in January after the mess they made of recruitment in the summer.”
Ryan Christie: “Of course everyone can win it. But we know there is a long time to go between now and the end of the season. There are so many big games to go and the important thing is we come out winning those games.”
Paul Di Giacomo: “I am realistic. We have got 31 points, so we are nine points away from 40 and that means we are safe. Hopefully we can get to 40 and then go on to beat last year’s points tally (59).
“I have been at this club far too long to get carried away. Could it happen? I would love it to happen, but realistically, I don’t think so.”
Can they upset Celtic on Saturday?
Since Clarke took over last October, Kilmarnock are undefeated in four games against Celtic. They have won both home games and drawn twice at Celtic Park.
Ryan Christie: “They are very well set up tactically and I’m sure they will look to frustrate us defensively. That is something we have got used to over the years and we are ready to try to overcome that obstacle.”
Steven Thompson: “Given Celtic’s home form in the league [won six from six], you would have to fancy them. But Killie can absorb pressure; they won’t mind sitting deep and making it difficult for Celtic.
“They are one of the best counter-attacking teams in the league, so they can cause them problems. It is going to be fascinating. They are on the crest of the wave and can go into the game with no fear.”