The recurring criticism levelled against Brendan Rodgers will surely vanish within one season of managing Celtic. After all, should the 43-year-old’s attempt to win major silverware run into a second season in Scotland then serious questions must be asked regarding his capabilities.
Celtic are the overwhelming favourites to return a sixth Scottish top-flight title in a row and, barring something disastrous, will justify that status. A more intriguing area for analysis may be Europe, where Rodgers has already made progress by guiding his team – when an obvious work in progress – to the Champions League’s play-off round. He hardly needed it from a support apparently captivated by his arrival but Rodgers has bought time rather than finding himself engulfed by early crisis.
Precisely where Celtic will play their continental football this side of Christmas can wait. On Sunday a trip to Tynecastle opens their league campaign.
Rodgers inherited the strongest squad in Scotland. His desire to add a winger and defensive obduracy is obvious, just as shedding midfield deadwood makes perfect sense. In Leigh Griffiths Celtic have the league’s most potent striker. Patrick Roberts, a Manchester City loanee, has the platform to showcase himself asits finest player.
The key to Rodgers’ enhancement of Celtic’s personnel is that he will have relatively lavish resources. The former Liverpool manager has impressed all of those within the club, raising the bar with hisattention to detail, planning and game knowledge. Rodgers makes those around him want to work; he has publicly heaped praise upon players who are in no doubt as to what switch may be flicked if they fall below newly implemented standards. Alterations to the style of play will be constant.
The phoney war between the Celtic squad and their counterparts at Rangers has been ongoing since before the end of last season when the Ibrox club’s return to the top flight was confirmed. This is so depressingly formulaic; Player X claiming their team is superior to Team Y. What else would or should they say?
The scale of such coverage does nothing to suggest Scottish football has used the four years of Rangers’ absence from the front line to accentuate alternative, positive themes.
Even the game’s administrators have an unhealthy obsession with the Old Firm narrative, which even seeps into the negotiation of television deals and, as a consequence, the league set-up. There are occasionally grim snapshots as to Scottish football’s general standing, such as thecoaxingof the Premiership’s second-highest scorer of last season, Kane Hemmings, by Oxford United of League One.
In Mark Warburton Rangers have a blue-chip manager of their own. The arrivals of Joey Barton, Niko Kranjcar, Clint Hill and Matt Gilks illustrate Warburton has quickly grasped the Glaswegian value of short-term success. Warburton’s own aspirations, after all, are linked to what barriers Rangers can place in front of Celtic.
Rangers’ problem is straightforward; a questionable defence. There is also the curious dynamic of supporter expectation. Any other club earning promotion from the Championship would be afforded time and grace to find their feet; that does not apply at a club of Rangers’ size. Warburton should benefit from a favourable opening set of fixtures, beginning when Hamilton visit on Saturday, and still the financial incentive to players which dwarves clubs such as Aberdeen and Hearts. The league to which Rangers have been promoted is also essentially weak. At home especially Rangers will win far more than they lose, rendering them likely runners-up. There could be a fair gulf to first, however.
Aberdeen and Hearts are expected to compete in the upper echelons of the league. The Edinburgh side are in need of a morale boost after the wounding Europa League exit to Maltese opposition. The key to Derek McInnes’s rejuvenation in the north-east has been an ability to retain Aberdeen’s key performers. So it proved again in this close season.
Hamilton have assumed the tag of favourites for demotion. They have, nonetheless, made a recent habit of defying odds. Intriguing in this context is Kilmarnock, where Lee Clark has made an admirable attempt at breaking season upon season of relegation battles by overhauling his playing staff. Should Clark have underestimated Scottish football, or tried too much too soon, Kilmarnock will struggle again.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010