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2019/20 Premiership preview - Celtic

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hislopsoffsideagain

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Celtic FC.svg
PREDICTED LEAGUE POSITION: FIRST

LAST SEASON: 1st, 87pts

NOTABLE INS: Christopher Jullien (Toulouse, £6m), Boli Bolingoli-Mbombo (Rapid Vienna, £3m), Hatem Abd Elhamed (Hapoel Be'er Sheva, £1.6m), Lucas Connell (Bolton Wanderers, £250k)

NOTABLE OUTS: Scott Allan (Hibernian), Dedryck Boyata (Hertha Berlin), Marvin Compper (Duisburg), P.J. Crossan (Dumbarton), Mikael Lustig (Gent), Filip Benkovic (Leicester City, end of loan), Oliver Burke (West Bromwich Albion, end of loan), Jeremy Toljan (Borussia Dortmund, end of loan), Timo Weah (Paris St. Germain, end of loan), Dorus De Vries (retired), Cristian Gamboa, Emilio Izaguirre, Youssouf Mulumbu

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (Departed players crossed out): Bain, Lustig, Ajer, Boyata, Tierney, McGregor, Christie, Forrest, Rogic, Sinclair, Edouard 


So Celtic have got to eight-in-a-row. And how many of those titles have been hotly contested? None. Don't believe any hype about there having been a title race last year. There wasn't. And nor should there have been. Even with Rangers apparently getting their house in order the gap between the the blue and green buttocks of Scottish football is still huge. In fact, it should probably be larger than the nine points that separated the sides over the whole of 2018-19.

There really shouldn't be a contest this time around either. Celtic' wage bill remains double that of their closest rivals and several times that of each of their other domestic rivals. The quality and depth which that buys should be enough for nine-in-a-row even if you, I or Ronny Deila were in charge.

That means expectations should be, correctly, different...and always makes writing a season preview for Celtic a headache. Of course they should be stronger everywhere on the pitch than everyone else in Scotland. Winning the league is the absolute minimum of what they should achieve. A properly successful season requires them to go far in Europe - and I don't mean to the last 32 of the Europa League. They would most likely be hammered several times in the Champions League Group Stages - what do you mean, it's unfair because the other clubs have so much more money than you? - but they need to be there for the prestige and for the cash. Otherwise there's a decent-sized hole in the accounts that ends up being filled by selling a star player.

And Celtic should get there. It may be harder than it was a few seasons ago but they will be a seed in every qualifying round that they play and on paper should be stronger than any opponent they can draw. Another run of Thursday-Sunday gamedays will not be welcomed.

There would be a lot more confidence if Brendan Rodgers was still here though. Celtic's results just about held up after he left, but they were unquestionably less creative and more sluggish under Neil Lennon. His eleven league games did produce a solid 24 points but included draws at home to Aberdeen and Livingston and away at Hibs, as well as late winners against Hearts (twice) and Dundee. Most galling, their sole defeat was at Ibrox where they didn't turn up. Whether the title was in the bag or not, such an appalling performance in the derby rang alarm bells.

So too did the first hour of the Scottish Cup Final, before Odsonne Edouard pulled a finger out. Time will tell whether Peter Lawwell really should have been so excited by the combination of Treble Treble elation, hospitality booze and being in the post-match showers that he offered Lennon the job permanently.

The new manager's first task was to trim the bloated squad Rodgers left behind. With Mikael Lustig essentially done, the only players Lennon would probably have liked to retain were Dedryck Boyata and Filip Benkovic but £6million signing Christopher Jullien looks more than capable for the physical challenge and should settle quickly. With Kristoffer Ajer developing into a hell of a player and Jozo Simunovic available as well, centre-back remains a position of strength (at least in comparison to other Premiership clubs).

At left-back, Boli Bolingoli has clearly been purchased on the assumption that Kieran Tierney's move to Arsenal will happen. A player of Tierney's quality is essentially irreplaceable but the Belgian will have to try. He's incredibly athletic and a threat going forward but far more suspect defensively than his predecessor and is likely to be found out by stronger opposition.

As for right-back, it's still not clear what the strategy is. Hatem Abd Elhamed was touted as a right-back when he arrived from Hapoel Be'er Shiva but he has in fact spent most of his career in central defence. Lennon showed a penchant for three at the back at Hibs and might intend to use James Forrest as a very, very, very high right wing-back. Whether that's the way to get the best out of the flying winger, and whether it would also be a huge vulnerability in continental action, are questions that need answered though.

It'll be interesting to see what midfield combination Lennon settles on. He claimed in April that he intended to build his team around Scott Brown, despite the fact the skipper is 34 and looked increasingly leggy last season. Brown has bounced back before after being written off but I'd be surprised if he was still a regular by the end of his current two year deal. The player that he should be building around is Callum McGregor, who was the best player in the country last year. However one feature of the post-Rodgers era is that he finds it far harder to find space in between the lines.

There is also the case for playing McGregor deeper; many would argue Celtic's best performances last season came when Brown was injured and McGregor had to play in his position. However with Nir Bitton having been rehabilitated after dropping out of favour with Rodgers, that's unlikely.

It's a bit of an embarrassment of riches, to be honest. Also competing for starting places are of course Ryan Christie, who has looked great in the European qualifiers, Olivier Ntcham, Tom Rogic and Scott Sinclair. Sinclair is the only one who looks happy out wide, but in turn he wasn't great last year and Lennon seems keen on Mikey Johnston as the long-term option there.

Rogic seems to have fallen behind Christie in the queue for the number ten position. Ntcham remains an enigma, a star when he feels like it and a plodder when (as is too often) he doesn't. It's no secret he wants away and it's probably in the club's interests to take the money...especially if there is less emphasis on keep-ball than there was in the past.

As for up top, they aren't exactly short either. Odsonne Edouard has all the tools as long as his body holds up. Leigh Griffiths looks refreshed after time out to deal with mental health issues. There's also the lesser spotted Vakoun Issouf Bayo who hasn't been fit since arriving in January.

In conclusion? Even to those who are sceptical about the Lennon appointment, its clear that Celtic have so much quality and depth in the squad that they are still the best team in the country by some way. In Europe however, they almost certainly aren't strong enough to make waves, whoever is in the dugout. Plus ça change...


THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1998 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Scott Bain, Craig Gordon
Defenders: Hatem Abd Elhamed, Kristoffer Ajer, Boli Bolingoli, Jack Hendry, Christopher Jullien, Calvin Miller, Anthony Ralston, Jozo Simunovic, Kieran Tierney
Midfielders: Daniel Arzani, Nir Bitton, Scott Brown, Lucas Connell, Jonny Hayes, Ewan Henderson, Eboue Kouassi, Callum McGregor, Lewis Morgan, Olivier Ntcham, Tom Rogic, Maryan Shved, Scott Sinclair
Forwards: Jack Aitchison, Vakoun Issouf Bayo, Ryan Christie, Karamoko Dembele, Odsonne Edouard, James Forrest, Leigh Griffiths, Michael Johnston

THE BEST XI?


 

Lawrie Spence has whinged about Scottish football on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007. He has a life outside this blog. Honestly.

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