Q. Can anyone stop Celtic?
A. No. Next question.
Q. So they will progress smoothly to the title in between European adventures that serve only to reveal the true strength of the Scottish champions on a grander stage?
A. That is the likeliest, and all too familiar, plotline for the new Scottish season, which begins at lunchtime with Celtic hosting Ross County. Certainly, in the Ladbrokes Premiership (at last the league has a title sponsor after two years without) as Celtic have the makings of a better side than the one that amassed a 17-point winning margin in the league last time out. It makes a successful challenge to their domestic dominance appear as sustainable as Scott Brown playing an entire 90 minutes with a beaming smile etched contentedly across his face.
Q. If that’s the case, can we forget about the top flight and focus on Scotland’s best soap opera, Rangers lurching from self-made disaster to made-at-home calamity and back again?
A. Hang on. Celtic may be hugely, and sensibly, favoured to make it five in a row under the guidance of a manager in Ronny Deila increasingly on top of his job, but there will be some testing hurdles to clear, not least from potentially the strongest domestic opponents to face them since Rangers last took the Premiership four years ago.
Celtic have won the league by 20, 16, 29 and 17 points respectively in the wake of Rangers’ triumph. Aberdeen, runners-up last time, have the wherewithal to cut the margin to single figures. That may not lead to an edge-of-the-seat season but, combined with the return of a happily rejuvenated Hearts, it should make greater demands of Deila’s side.
The immediate priority for Deila is to make the Champions League group stage – Wednesday’s return leg in Baku against Qarabag is of far greater importance to Celtic than this afternoon’s domestic curtain-raiser. Celtic crave a return to the Champions League proper. It is where Scotland’s biggest club believe they belong. Now they need to prove that they do.
It is not only around Celtic Park that the hope is they will do just that. It would be for the greater good of the Scottish game but it can also dominate Celtic’s focus in the first half of the season. Aberdeen, on the evidence of last season and the first knockings of this one in their Europa League qualifiers, have the quality to take advantage of any distraction from domestic chores shown by Celtic. Derek McInnes, a good manager, has kept his squad intact and added Graeme Shinnie, the most consistent left-back in Scotland. There is justifiable cause for optimism in Aberdeen; this is the best side assembled at Pittodrie for a couple of decades.
Q. But Aberdeen lost four out of four against Celtic last season – even if Celtic shed some early-season points they won’t be that worried, will they?
A. Aberdeen topped the table into the new year and by March were still one win from Celtic yet Kris Commons, the champions’ midfielder, said he and his team-mates were never concerned by Aberdeen’s pursuit. In the key encounter in March, Celtic strutted to a 4-0 win. The two clubs operate in different leagues off the field, as does the rest of Scotland. Outside of Celtic Park it remains a hand-to-mouth existence, one-year contracts are the norm, with a host of players released come the end of the season.
The £1.5m Celtic spent on each of Dedryck Boyata and Nadir Ciftci stands out in a transfer market where fees are the exception – the £40,000 Dundee United spent on Mark Durnan is next best in the top flight. Ciftci was taken from Tannadice as Gary Mackay-Steven and Stuart Armstrong were in the previous campaign. It is the rule of the school bully – if he sees someone in the playground with something he wants, there is little to stop him having it.
Add Brown, Stefan Johansen, Nir Bitton, James Forrest to Armstrong and Mackay-Steven, and Commons is struggling to get a game in Celtic’s midfield. If Virgil van Dijk, the league’s best player, stays in Scottish situ (and that may depend on Champions League qualification) he and Boyata will form a formidable defensive barrier, while Leigh Griffiths and Ciftci, once his six-game domestic ban for biting is served, will score plenty of goals. Lots, then, to worry domestic opponents.
Q. Can anyone else push Aberdeen or put some pressure on Celtic?
A. Dundee United underachieved last season, especially once they lost their two best players, and Jackie McNamara, whose reputation has dipped, is under pressure to return them to a top-four spot. Rodney Sneijder, brother of Wesley, and Darko Bodul, a former Croatia Under-21 striker, are interesting signings; if they pay off United will come again.
In contrast, Inverness and Ross County overachieved and will struggle to maintain those levels. But it is the return of Hearts that excites most interest. Robbie Neilson, who stands alongside Dundee’s Paul Hartley as a young Scottish top-flight coach with a potentially bright future, cantered his side through a demanding Championship last season in style.
There is an awful lot to be admired about the way Hearts are run off the pitch – most notably in paying the living wage – but their worth on it remains to be seen. The locals are convinced; the club are set to sell 14,000 season tickets for a stadium that holds 17,500. They are a young side – the new captain Alim Öztürk is just 22 – and losing Danny Wilson, last season’s captain, to Rangers is damaging. It makes their start to the campaign very important.
Q. So finally can we talk about Rangers – how much fun are they going to give us this season?
A. Wilson’s decision to remain in the Championship is one of a number of hopeful signs for the blue parts of Glasgow. The centre-half is one of seven recruited by Mark Warburton, three of whom scored in last weekend’s 6-2 romp against Hibernian, their main rivals in the second tier. The imaginative Warburton has the makings of an excellent appointment, charged with a long overdue overhaul of the Ibrox playing side from top to bottom.
If the finances can be put right – and only Celtic have spent more money in the transfer market this summer – then there is real, if guarded (the scars remain too fresh, the bruises too livid), reason for optimism. This is a season, then, which is forecast to end – and it is no bold prediction – with both sides of the Glasgow divide sitting pretty with a title to their name.
It's a big season for… Five players with something to prove in 2015-16
Ryan Jack (Aberdeen)
The 23-year-old will captain Aberdeen for what may well be his last campaign in Scotland. There is growing interest from south of the border in the midfielder and if he continues to progress as in the past couple of seasons then a move to the English Premier League – and a regular place in the Scotland squad – should be his.
Leigh Griffiths (Celtic)
How good is Griffiths? Flat-track bully, or natural goalscorer? The 24-year-old has always scored but has still to convince he can be a consistent threat against better teams. The first half of 2015 has gone well, with a hatful of goals and a return to the national side, and he has looked sharp in pre-season – though Ronny Deila still preferred Nadir Ciftci against Qarabag on Wednesday.
John Souttar (Dundee United)
The midfielder became United’s youngest-ever player when he made his debut two years ago aged 16 and is the latest precocious talent to emerge from Tannadice following Andy Robertson and Ryan Gauld. The midfielder has caught Southampton’s attention and there is a club who know a thing or two about spotting young talent.
Jamie Walker (Hearts)
The No 10 shone throughout the capital side’s romp to the Championship last season, scoring 11 times and creating plenty more. But he has made minimal impact in two previous campaigns in the Premiership before Hearts’ relegation, albeit in the fledgling stage of his career. At 22 is he ready to make his mark in the top flight?
Dedryck Boyata (Celtic)
Marc Wilmots says a good season in Scotland will clinch a return to the Belgium side for Boyata. The same incentive worked for Jason Denayer last season, but Boyata’s career is further down the line than his former Manchester City team-mate after making little impression in England. The 24-year-old appears to have settled quickly and has the makings of an excellent recruit.
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