It may only be the middle of July, but the season is well underway for Scottish Premiership champions Celtic. After appointing glamour manager Brendan Rodgers, The Bhoys contest with another early start that arguably makes or breaks the season.
Champions League football is seen as a bonus down Parkhead way, however for a giant like Celtic to keep its status as one of the biggest in Europe, its participation in the continent's premier competition is a must. To make sure they return for the first time in three years, Brendan Rodgers will have to pull out all the stops and convince the unpopular Celtic board to release the funds required to build a team capable of competing.
Will the Rodgers Revolution learn from Deila's demise?
Last season wasn't the greatest by any means even as Celtic made it five league titles on the trot in a topsy-turvy league campaign in which Aberdeen put up a bit of competition for two thirds of it. The style of play was not at a standard expected of being 'The Celtic Way' as sideways passing, lack of pace and half-hearted pressing infected the team throughout large periods of the campaign. Subsequently, manager Ronny Deila resigned a few games before the end and signed off his uninspiring reign with a 7-0 victory at home to Motherwell with a team composed off fresher faces.
The games which mattered were not won, plain and simple. A defeat to Rangers in the Scottish Cup semi-final as well as a woeful Europa League group stage campaign filled with more drama and mistakes than a fan would want plagued The Hoops at home and abroad. Change was definitely required from staff to player level and all eyes pointed to the board who themselves were under pressure to leave by a large number of the support.
Correspondingly, they appointed Brendan Rodgers.
After more than 13,000 fans greeted the Northern Irishman at Celtic Park, work went ahead behind the scenes as Rodgers brought in his own crew including assistant manager Chris Davies. Davies was Reading first team coach and had been with Rodgers between 2010 and 2015 as Rodgers' right-hand man at Swansea and Liverpool.
The current situation
On the field thus far, pre-contact signing from January Kristoffer Ajer has arrived from Start in his native Norway and hot prospect Moussa Dembélé became Rodgers' first official buy but the club had been tracking him since the start of the year. Departing went so-called 'deadwood' which included Carlton Cole, Colin Kazim-Richards and Anthony Stokes - who was on-loan at Hibernian last season.
Celtic kicked off their pre-season tour in Slovenia against NK Celje in a match which The Bhoys had to come from two goals behind to draw two all. The goals that night came from Nadir Ciftci and Tom Rogic. The Celts then hopped across the border into Austria to play Sturm Graz and ran out 1-0 winners with Ryan Christie scoring from a first half cutback from Scott Allan. The final games in Slovenia were against the top two in their domestic table. A narrow win against Olimpija Lubljana and a scoreless draw against Maribor set The Hoops up for their first competitive action - a Champions League qualifier against Gibraltar league winners Lincoln Red Imps.
In a shocking turn of events, Celtic were defeated by the minnows that were partly made up of semi-professionals. Some have called the result the worst in the club's history. Brendan Rodgers told the press that it was not embarrassing, but behind closed doors the new gaffer would have let his true feelings be known to his underperforming players. The one benefit the result would have given Rodgers is that he will have learned more about certain players than he would have if Celtic romped to victory and thus can go to the board and use the result as a means of getting more money for players.
Returning to domestic duty next month, Celtic have a new challenge to contest with than what they have been accustomed to over the last few years. Not only will Aberdeen be hot on their tails but so will Rangers who have been playing lower league football for the past four seasons. With European football the aim, having to juggle that as well as keeping up a substantial league lead will show the character of the squad that Rodgers will assemble. Aberdeen have ambitions to reach the Europa League proper so Rangers will have the advantage over both with less fixtures to contend with over the first half of the season at least.
Not only do Celtic have their eyes on Europe and making it six-in-a-row in the Scottish Premiership, but the cup competitions must also be an aim after a poor performance in both last season going out to Ross County and Rangers respectively in both semi-finals. A glory laden treble season has evaded Celtic since 2000/01 under Martin O'Neill. It will be up to another Northern Irishman to match his compatriot's feat but to do it in this season of all seasons will be something spectacular as The Bhoys are juggling multiple competitions and an increased challenge for the league title.
The players must step up to fan pressure and show the new manager what they're made of
To perform in these competitions will be the key to getting the best results from them, of course, so it is up to the players to pull through. Last season, the stars at the club included top goal scorer Leigh Griffiths, midfield maestro Tom Rogic, and starlet Kieran Tierney at left-back. From front to back these three mainstays were key in sealing up Celtic's title victory. Griffiths' goals proved vital in a lot of matches and Tom Rogic smashed it in his 'breakthrough season'. Young Tierney was introduced at the end of the previous season and went on to take the permanent place of Emilio Izaguirre after a wonder season for the new Scottish internationalist.
The players who didn't perform to the best of their ability last season included captain Scott Brown, the season previous' player of the year Stefan Johansen and defender Efe Ambrose. The captain played through injury for most of the campaign and it showed for the best part of it as he had lost his familiar high work rate and aggressiveness in the centre of the field. With Johansen it seemed that his head was not in the game at all and looked a shadow of the player from the season before. In the match against Rangers, one in which the centre of midfield is key, the Norwegian went missing and this annoyed fans. Finally, centre-back Ambrose continued to baffle fans with his selection as he yet again made mistakes in crucial matches, most prominently against Fenerbahçe.
In the recent match away at Lincoln Red Imps, Ambrose was to blame again as his poor defensive work allowed Lee Casciaro to score the winner. For a third manager on the trot, the Nigerian has featured in important games and been to blame for conceding including Juventus for Neil Lennon, Fenerbahçe for Ronny Deila and Lincoln Red Imps for Brendan Rodgers. When the new manager was appointed, fans pointed at Ambrose as the first name to leave yet Rodgers has kept faith in him.
The one to watch next season
Another player which Rodgers seems to have faith in on a more positive not is Ryan Christie who is someone to watch for next season. The 21-year-old attacking midfielder has had a great pre-season, nipping in with a few goals most recently at home to Wolfsburg. The Invernesian has to contend with many attacking midfielders at Celtic's behest, so his notable performances thus far will put him in good stead. It's when he has been playing up front or off the striker that Christie has excelled and may become his position in the following months.
For the coming season, Celtic have a lot to do to right the many wrongs of last season. The defeat against Rangers will of course have to be avenged once the two lock horns again in September. Getting to the Champions League will send fans wild with excitement and season ticket sales will continue to go through the roof. With the first British safe standing section, Celtic Park will be rocking again so it will be up to the players and the staff to correspond - they will need the bottle.