McGeady sure Celtic can play their way to title

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The Independent Football

Aiden McGeady believes Celtic are a far better team than last year but acknowledges that the Scottish champions face a fight to hold on to their league title this season.

Celtic sit just three points above Rangers in the Scottish Premier League compared to the 10 points that separated them this time last year and McGeady predicts a far closer title race. "Overall, we have been on a good run of form," he said. "But the league is very tight at the minute and, so far, it has not been like last year where we had already opened up a gap at the top. The league looks like it's going to go right to the wire but I think we have suffered with injuries recently.

"It's a pity because I think that we have been playing better football than last year and it's been more entertaining. We have been better and, while our attacking play has been more creative, defensively we've not been conceding many goals. Although we don't have the gap at the top like last year, I think we have improved all round."

Celtic are also in a tough Champions League group which includes Milan, Shakhtar Donetsk and Benfica. That means a gruelling fixture list for the players but midfielder McGeady has no complaints. "We've got a few busy months ahead of us," he said. "But as a player you want to play and every game that comes up you want to be involved in it."

The Celtic defender Bobo Balde, meanwhile, has revealed he turned down the chance of a three-month spell at Sunderland. Balde, 32, who has found himself out of the first-team picture at Parkhead and seems destined to leave, said Roy Keane, whose interest in him was well known, tried to bring him in on a short-term deal in August.

Balde said: "I had been in contact with Sunderland manager Roy Keane on the last day of the transfer window. He wanted me, but only for three months. I didn't want to go for three months, but [Celtic chief executive] Peter Lawwell didn't find a way to let me go permanently.

"I didn't refuse to leave just to be here playing reserve-team football. I refused to leave because I wanted everything to be clear, not the way Peter Lawwell, or anyone else, wants."

Keane has been linked with another move for the Frenchman in January, when he will look to strengthen his squad further, although his interest in Manchester United's Jonny Evans, who spent the second half of last season on loan at the Stadium of Light, is no secret.

Balde has not started a competitive senior game all season, but scored in yesterday's 2-2 Old Firm reserve-team draw with Rangers. He was handed a four-and-a-half-year contract in January 2005 and is Celtic's highest earner on a reputed £28,000 a week.

However, injuries have limited his participation and he is now regarded as the club's sixth-choice central defender. Striker Derek Riordan, a June 2006 signing from Hibernian, is also looking for a way out of Parkhead.

Steven Whittaker has vowed to fight for his place at Rangers and insists he can be an Ibrox hit. The 23-year-old enjoyed a dream start at his new club following his £2m move from Hibernian in August. He was pitched straight into the first team for the opening games of the season and scored in the 7-2 win over Falkirk in August.

Whittaker also retained his place for the Champions League clash against Stuttgart, but a dip in form recently means he has not featured since the defeat by Hibernian at the start of October. He said: "I know I am not in the starting XI right now but it is a long season and we have a very big squad so I think there will be a lot of changes in the months ahead.

"Players will be rested at times and others brought in so it is just a matter of taking your chance when it comes along and impressing the manager. At a big club that is the way it should be and I am confident the group of lads we have can have a successful season."

The former Hibernian full-back has been deployed as a midfielder since joining Rangers and may need to focus on that role to force his way back into Walter Smith's plans.

"When I was at Hibs I made my name as a full-back and I played in this role for a number of years, although I was used occasionally on the right side of midfield," said Whittaker. "But if I'm going to be used in this role at Rangers all the time I am happy with that and know that I need to keep working hard on improving my game in an attacking sense."

Whittaker has so far complemented Alan Hutton when the two have played together but would be more than willing to reprise his role as right-back if ever called upon. "There is no stopping Alan right now, he is doing fantastically well for Rangers and Scotland which is great," said Whittaker. "He has played a lot of games recently but you wouldn't think it because he just keeps bombing up and down the flank.

"He is in fantastic form although I am always there to step in if he gets suspended or picks up a knock."