Thursday, August 7, 2014

2014-15 Premiership preview - Celtic

Celtic crest


LAST SEASON: 1st, 99pts

NOTABLE INS: Craig Gordon (unattached), Jo Inge Berget (Cardiff City, loan)

NOTABLE OUTS: Tony Watt (Standard Liege, £1.2m), Steven Mouyokolo, Georgios Samaras

LAST SEASON'S BEST XI (departed players crossed out): Forster, Lustig, Van Dijk, Ambrose, Izaguirre, Johansen, Brown, Mulgrew, Commons, Samaras, Stokes

Writing about Celtic's upcoming season in relation to their Scottish Premiership opponents feels a little bit daft.  It's the equivalent of a Grand Prix race between a Formula One car and some horse-drawn carriages.  Of course the league will be won with plenty to spare.  Even if their players were blindfolded and had one leg tied behind their backs, they'd still win it.  Heck, they'd probably even be champions if Tony Mowbray was manager.  That's the advantage of having a wage budget that is greater than all eleven of your domestic opponents put together.  So any criticisms I make have to be put into that context.  There are more than twenty players under contract at Celtic Park who would walk into any other team in the division, after all.

The club know that another title is a formality, and the fans know that too.  And that means that new boss Ronny Deila will be judged by other criteria, the most significant of which is continental competition.  His main remit was to get to the Champions League, but Legia Warsaw have put paid to that.  A decent Europa League run aside, fans now have nothing to look forward to for the rest of the season but the drudge of domestic competition.  Welcome to our world, chaps!  Deila's rather cackhanded attempt at overhauling Celtic's style of play certain hasn't been successful so far, but he seems determined to play one up front rather than a twin spearhead.  There have been rumours of squad discontent, but I imagine those will dissipate once the league season starts and victories are accumulated.  To keep the fans happy, there needs to be plenty of goals and no repeat of recent domestic cup hiccups.

What I would really like to see, out of a selfish desire to see Scottish players achieving their maximum potential, is for a few youngsters to see more action.  Perhaps they will - Callum McGregor has been plucked from obscurity (on loan at Notts County last season) to become a first choice, with impressive results.  Or perhaps they won't - Tony Watt, hero against Barcelona two years ago, has been sold.  It's a shame that Watt has been shelved in favour of giving game time to the likes of Teemu Pukki and Jo Inge Berget.

The latter's arrival on loan is one of only two signings so far.  Berget is happiest just behind the striker, which probably means he will mainly see action in relief of Kris Commons.  The other new boy is fit-again Craig Gordon, who will compete with Lukasz Zaluska to replace Fraser Forster if 'The Wall' gets a big money move as expected.  Celtic's relative prudence this summer might partly be due to the rather bloated squad that Neil Lennon left Deila.  I daresay he'd like to clear a bit of space by disposing of the likes of Amido Balde, Tom Rogic and Derk Boerrigter, but finding buyers isn't proving easy.  So until the increasingly inevitable sale of Forster and/or the other truly international class player in the squad, Virgil Van Dijk, there might not be any more newcomers.

Of course, those two would be virtually impossible to replace, at least to the same standard.  If Van Dijk leaves, that might have to mean Charlie Mulgrew dropping back from midfield to play in central defence, unless a direct replacement is brought in.  Whether the erratic Efe Ambrose would look quite as comfortable alongside a new partner is open to debate; Celtic will certainly miss Van Dijk's ability to launch attacks and to score at set-pieces.  If they run the risk of being short in that position, they are positively stocked in the full-back areas.  Mikael Lustig and Emilio Izaguirre are real assets, while Adam Matthews can do a very good job on either flank.  Darnell Fisher looked alright when he got the chance, and he may see some action when he recovers from a knee operation.

In midfield, Scott Brown has been playing some of the best football of his career in the last year, so his current absence is a blow, though Stefan Johansen might be tucked inside to replace him; the Norwegian impressed in a more wide role after arriving in January.  Alternatively, Liam Henderson looks like a prospect and will hopefully take advantage of the chance to get some more first team action.  Nir Biton got better as last season progressed and will probably see more action in a defensive midfield role than countryman Beram Kayal, even despite objections from his own supporters after some rather 'political' tweets in the summer.

Between them and a lone frontman will be Commons, Scottish football's outstanding player last season.  Deila's life will be a lot easier if Commons picks up where he left off, and remains capable of beating domestic opponents on his own.  I'm not convinced that the new boss knows who he wants in the wide areas though.  McGregor has done enough to cement one position for now, but Berget and an uncomfortable-looking Leigh Griffiths have been used on the other flank without much joy.  Maybe James Forrest, if he can actually keep fit, will prove the solution.  Griffiths would be far better off as centre forward, but appears to be competing for one spot with the likes of Pukki and Anthony Stokes.  Whoever does start up front should be expected to score plenty.

Is that enough players to be going along with?  I could have published a "second-best XI" below which read 'Zaluska, Fisher, Mulgrew, O'Connell, Matthews, Kayal, Henderson, Biton, Boerrigter, Griffiths, Pukki' and still left people out.

As I said, there is no doubt that Celtic will retain the title.  But they might be a bit more vulnerable this season, especially if it takes time for Deila to get them playing the way he wants them to play.  And so the first couple of months could be interesting, much like two seasons ago when they were distracted by the Champions League.  If there is still a title race after Christmas, then that suggests that the Norwegian isn't the right man for the job.

THE SQUAD (players born after 1 January 1993 in italics)
Goalkeepers: Fraser Forster, Craig Gordon, Lukasz Zaluska
Defenders: Efe Ambrose, Joe ChalmersDarnell FisherMarcus Fraser, Emilio Izaguirre, Mikael Lustig, Adam Matthews, Charlie Mulgrew, Eoghan O'Connell, Lewis Toshney, Virgil Van Dijk
Midfielders: Nir Biton, Derk Boerrigter, Scott Brown, Kris Commons, Paul GeorgeLiam HendersonJohn HerronJackson Irvine, Stefan Johansen, Beram Kayal, Dylan McGeouchCallum McGregor, Tom Rogic, Filip Twardzik
Forwards: Bahrudin Atajic, Amido Balde, Jo Inge Berget, James Forrest, Holmbert Fridjonsson, Leigh Griffiths, Teemu Pukki, Anthony Stokes


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