Celtic  Season Preview: Hoops aiming for record-equalling nine in a row
Celtic celebrating eight in a row (Getty Images/Ian MacNicol)

Celtic arrive at the starting blocks for the 2019/20 season of the Scottish Premiership with a massive target on their back. The Bhoys have been champions for eight seasons in a row now and the last time anyone other than Celtic won a major trophy in Scotland was when Hibernian beat Rangers in the 2016 Scottish Cup final. Since then, Brendan Rodgers and Neil Lennon have led Celtic to an unprecedented treble treble and they are still very much the team to beat in Scotland.

Transfer Business Overview

There has been quite a lot of turnover in personnel at Celtic this summer but a lot of it was bit-part players being shown the door to help reduce what was an over-inflated squad last season. None of Scott Allan, Cristian Gamboa, Marvin Compper, Youssouf Mulumbu or Dorus de Vries really made the grade at Celtic Park and their departures are unlikely to make much of an impact to anything other than the wage bill. Mikael Lustig, Dedryck Boyata and even Emilio Izaguirre saw a bit more action with Lustig and Boyata probably the first choice when everyone was fit so their departures will be felt more than some of the others. Oliver Burke, Filip Benkovic, Jeremy Toljan and Timothy Weah all returned to their parent clubs after loan spells but in truth, Lennon had pretty much written most of them off and they all struggled for game time when he replaced Rodgers as manager.

The key signing this summer was Christopher Jullien. The centre-back arrived at Celtic from Toulouse for £7.2 million which is second only to Odsonne Edouard on the list of most expensive Celts. Boli Bolingoli arrived for £3 million from Rapid Vienna. He is a left-back and will be either competition or a replacement for Kieran Tierney depending on where the defender starts next season. Hatem Abd Elhamed, who can play centre-back or right-back, arrived from Hapoel Beer Shiva for £1.6 million and young Irish midfielder, Luca Connell also came in on a free from Bolton Wanderers.

The Celtic squad now looks like a more streamlined unit after the summer business but there is definitely still room for improvement. Right-back has been an issue for some time now with Lustig’s form dropping as he got older. However, the club tried a few times to bring someone else in and the Swede saw them all off. At the moment Abd Elhamed looks to have the jersey with his only challenger being Anthony Ralston who doesn’t look like he is of a high enough standard. Another right-back should be a priority.

Last week, Lennon started Edouard and Leigh Griffiths together in attack for the Champions League game against Nomme Kalju. If that is going to become a permanent thing, then Celtic need another striker with Vakoun Issouf Bayo the only backup. Any other business will likely depend on Champions League qualification and the outcome of Tierney’s proposed transfer to Arsenal. If Tierney moves, Celtic will need to replace him and they will have a substantial wad of cash to do so. Who they would target though is anyone’s guess. 

Early Season Form

Celtic’s preseason has consisted of four friendlies and four Champions League qualifiers. It has been a case of so far so good for Lennon with two wins and two draws in the friendlies and four wins from their four competitive fixtures. A pre-season tour of Austria and Switzerland saw Celtic ready themselves for Europe with a 6-1 win over Pinkafeld, a 2-1 win over Wiener SC and a 0-0 draw with St Gallen. Their final friendly was a 0-0 draw in Glasgow with Rennes, a match that fell between the two legs of Celtic’s opening Champions League qualifier with Sarajevo.

In the first leg against Sarajevo, Celtic fell behind but from then on they never looked in any danger. They won 3-1 in the away leg before punctuating their superiority with a 2-1 win in Glasgow. These ties usually get harder as you progress but in Celtic’s case, that didn’t happen. Nomme Kalju were next up and Celtic pummelled the Estonian champions. The tie was virtually won in a ten minute period running up to half-time in the first leg when Celtic scored three goals. They added another two in the second half to win 5-0 before completing a professional job with early and late goals in a 2-0 win in Tallinn to secure a 7-0 aggregate victory.

Celtic will face a tougher challenge in the next round when they take on Romanian champions, CFR Cluj. Cluj have been in the group stages before, although not since 2012 and they have already defeated Astana and Maccabi Tel Aviv to reach this stage. Lennon will no doubt have to ensure his charges are ready for the step up in opposition but not before they take on St Johnstone at Celtic Park this Saturday where they will unfurl the league champions flag for an eighth season in a row.

Player To Watch

Celtic have a number of star players who have all played their bit in the clubs recent successes, however, the most important player this season could be Ryan Christie. The Scotland international, is a rare example of a player being loaned out to aid his development and actually coming back to prove himself instead of the loan just being the first step in a downward curve that usually leads to the player never fulfilling his potential.

Christie signed for Celtic after winning the SFWA Young Player of the Year in 2015, the same season he helped his hometown club, Inverness Caledonian Thistle win the Scottish Cup. He returned to Inverness on loan but it ended in injury and he returned to Celtic where he struggled for game time.

In January 2017, he was loaned to Aberdeen and it was with the Dons that he was able to rekindle the form that saw Celtic make a move for him in the first place. In 18 months with Aberdeen he scored 15 goals and assisted on 18 which led to Celtic giving him the opportunity to stake his claim for a place in the team at the beginning of the 2018/19 campaign.

Many thought this would ultimately end in failure and he would probably end up back on loan in January but Christie had other ideas and scored 11 goals and set up nine in a season that ended early after he picked up a nasty facial injury in the Scottish Cup semi-final win over Aberdeen. The latter stages of Celtic’s season were marred by a number of games were Celtic struggled to score goals and perhaps this was a direct consequence of Christie’s absence.

He has already started this season well with three goals and two assists in Celtic’s opening Champions League qualifiers so if he can stay fit, he’s probably the most important player in Celtic’s push for nine in a row.

One For The Future

It’s not easy to go from the youth team up to the first team at a club like Celtic with the constant demand for success. However, one man who looks like he is in the process of doing just that is Mikey Johnston. Lennon seems to be a fan of the player who has been at Celtic since he was nine years old. He made a few fleeting appearances under Rodgers but since Lennon has arrived, he has found himself in the starting lineup more often and he has started all three of the Champions League qualifiers that he was fit for this summer.

Scott Sinclair has made a huge impact since moving to Celtic but as it stands, Johnston is keeping him out of the team. He is very technically gifted and loves going one on one with defenders and often gets the better of them. He netted five league goals last season and has already made his mark with a goal and an assist this season. When compared to the minutes he has played, that is a very good return and he looks like a very good prospect for the Bhoys.

Predicted Finish

It’s generally a case of if you’re not first, you’re last for Celtic and once again anything other than winning another title will be considered a failure. Celtic had a lot of problems on and off the field last season with injuries and the managerial change but they still managed to win the treble including a nine-point margin at the top of the league table. If Celtic can keep their key players fit, particularly in attack, then there’s nobody close enough to stop another procession to the title.