THE first game after the winter break. Hibernian at home. A scenario that just 12 months ago, had Celtic supporters breaking out in a cold sweat. A year on though, they will be approaching tonight’s match against Hibs at Celtic Park with a great deal more relish.

“Aye well we don’t have 16 missing for Monday, so definitely!” said Greg Taylor, who remarkably on that night – despite the raft of players ruled out through Covid protocols – still found himself on the bench.

“That’s certainly a start. No squad can handle losing 16 players, so thankfully, we’ve not got that amount missing.”

In fact, the Celtic team that go into the game against former Celt Shaun Maloney’s side this evening will not only be a good deal stronger than the one who took to the field in that 1-1 draw between the teams last January, but will be in a significantly sounder position in terms of personnel than they were for their last match.

The 3-1 win at St Johnstone prior to this season’s winter shutdown marked the end of a hectic run of fixtures that cost Celtic manager Ange Postecoglou some of his key performers through injury, with young striker Joey Dawson being given an early debut in place of Kyogo after his hamstring injury flared up once more.

This match may have come too soon for the Japanese striker, but his compatriots Reo Hatate, Yosuke Ideguchi and Daizen Maeda will be hoping to make their debuts, while Jota is back in full training following his own hamstring issue.

For Taylor, it all adds up to the Celtic squad being in fine fettle for the challenges that await them in the second half of the campaign, as they look to reel in Rangers at the top of the Premiership.

“Exactly, the gaffer has touched on that, we’ve had challenges throughout the whole period since he came in,” he said.

“But we’re not looking to make excuses for ourselves, we just take each game as it comes and try to play the way we want to play.

“Now we’re coming into the business end of the season, and hopefully we can put on more performances and the results will take care of themselves.

“We always want to improve. The gaffer is a big believer that every game, every training session is an opportunity to do that.

“That will be our aim for the next few months, definitely, to try and build on what we’ve done in the first few months and strive to improve.

“It’s going to be tough, the games are going to be coming thick and fast again over the next few weeks and every game is important and every game will be difficult.

“Other games will bring different challenges, but the first game we’re focusing on is Hibs on Monday night, and that will be a tough game.”

Taylor revealed that manager Postecoglou has relished the chance to get back on the training field over the winter break, reinforcing some of the principles that saw Celtic improve sharply over the first few months of his tenure.

The Celtic players have also been using the time to help the new arrivals from Japan get used to their new surroundings, and Taylor feels they are ready to hit the ground running.

“They have settled in really well, actually, they have,” he said.

“They have trained well [last] week so they will be hoping to be involved in the upcoming weeks. They are all really nice lads, good work ethic, they have handled it really well.

“You try and be as pleasant as you can. Of course you’ve got the language barrier with the Japanese guys a bit just now, but already their English is improving day-by-day…it is hard listening to my Scottish accent at the best of times. It can’t be easy for anyone.

“When we are on the training pitch [you] explain the standards that we need to set every day. The manager’s pretty clear with that. It’s all pretty clear for anyone that comes in the demands you pretty much need to hit straight away.”

Taylor was predictably delighted to hear the news last week that this match will take place in front of the customary 60,000-odd supporters rather than the 500 that were permitted to attend at McDiarmid Park.

“Over the moon with that,” he said. “It is not the same playing with 500 fans or no fans last year. It does totally change the whole game. So it’s great to have the full stadium.

“Thankfully that is the decision that was made and it was a real relief for us, and we are really pleased.”

All that being said, Taylor expects just as tough an examination from Hibs as Celtic faced this time last year, particularly now that they are under the management of Maloney.

“Everyone speaks really highly of Shaun Maloney here, they say he was a top coach,” he said.

“The young lads had him in the reserves, and they speak really highly of him.

“Hibs have got a strong group of players, so we know it’s not going to be easy regardless of who is going to be in charge.

“The cup final was an example of that, they didn’t have a permanent manager and it was still an extremely difficult game with top players out there for them.

“So, we know it’s going to be difficult come Monday, but we need to be ready and I’m sure we will be.”