Thursday, December 8, 2016

Will Brendan Rodgers get bored?

That defeat to Lincoln Red Imps seems a long time ago now.

Let's face it, Brendan Rodgers is at Celtic Park because his managerial stock was not at all high after a pretty rotten year or so at the end of his tenure at Liverpool.  And after a hapless debut defeat to a bunch of part-timers, it was at an all-time low.

Admittedly, the only way was up after that Gibraltar humiliation, and following two mediocre seasons under Ronny Deila's leadership.  But the leap that Celtic have taken so far this season has been greater than most Celtic fans would have dreamed of.  And the credit for that should go entirely to Brendan Rodgers.

As we approach the end of 2016, Rodgers is unbeaten against all domestic opponents, the only mild aberration being a draw in Inverness where Celtic were denied multiple times by a combination of the woodwork and a superhuman goalkeeper before conceding a last-gasp equalizer against the run of play.  They won the League Cup, beating the second-best team in the country (sorry, Rangers fans!) by a convincing margin.  They lead the league by eight points, and have three games in hand on their nearest chasers.  And they have won both Old Firm derbies so far, the first by a score of 5-1.  If this were a music compilation, it would be named Now That's What I Call Dominance.

Whilst Celtic fans are of course used to winning - the club are aiming for a sixth consecutive title - it's been a while since they've won with such style.   This is their best start to a league season since 2003/04, and that Celtic side boasted the likes of Henrik Larsson, John Hartson, Chris Sutton, Neil Lennon and Bobo Balde.  The budget is tighter nowadays, but the quality of the football is higher than it has been for a long time.

Whilst Rodgers has made some useful signings - this summer Moussa Dembele will command the highest transfer fee ever received for a Celtic player, while Scott Sinclair has found his mojo again - more importantly he has had a positive impact on several players he inherited from Deila.  James Forrest, Stuart Armstrong and Jozo Simunovic are particular beneficiaries of his coaching.

Rodgers might also have been heavily criticized at times when Liverpool manager for unusual tactics, but his use of a lopsided back four - with Kieran Tierney or Emilio Izaguirre bombing forward on the left whilst Mikel Lustig tends to tuck in from the right to support the centre-backs - has been enormously successful against Scottish opponents.  Whilst there is still a bit of defensive frailty, the attacking prowess is such that they can bet on themselves to outscore the opposition if Motherwell discovered last weekend.

Such is their overwhelming superiority that, barring a major off-day or some Josh Meekings-esque ill fortune in one of their Scottish Cup ties, Celtic are surely going to win the treble this season.

So it's really going rather well.  In fact, how much better can it get?

The only room for improvement is in Europe, where Rodgers took Celtic to the Champions League Group Stage for the first time in three seasons, but failed to win a game in a very difficult group.  The three points they obtained over six matches against Barcelona, Manchester City and Borussia Moenchengladbach was three more than I thought they would manage.  But at no point did they even look like finishing third in that group, let alone make the last sixteen.

But what would it take to go further?  The gap between Celtic and the the continent's top clubs is akin to that between Celtic and other Scottish Premiership sides, only in reverse.  Barcelona's annual turnover is about ten times higher.  Whilst this year's progress will bring in upwards of £20million, that's still just a few drops in the ocean at this level.  And whilst a more favourable draw in next year's Group Stage would make third place, and a subsequent Europa League run, a realistic aim, Celtic will still need to play three qualifying ties just to get there.  A place in the last sixteen?  Even with reinforcements, they'd need Tony Watt and a hell of a lot of luck to manage that.

Improving on this impressive first season is going to take a lot of doing.  In fact, getting Celtic to where they want to be - up with the European elite - borders on impossible, akin to trying to reach the stratosphere with little more than a bicycle and some homemade wings.

In contrast, the prospect of any domestic challenge is distant at best.  Aberdeen and Hearts simply don't have the resources; Rangers are still a financial basket-case.  We've all had Championship Manager saves that we've stopped playing because we got bored of winning all the time - might this happen to Rodgers in real life?  The prospect of comfortably beating Partick Thistle three times a year can only motivate one for so long.

That's not to say Rodgers' head will be turned all that easily.  After all, he is a Northern Irishman who supported Celtic in his youth, and that sort of loyalty can go a long way.  But he is also ambitious.  And come this summer, his stock will be high again.  I bet there will be a few English Premier League clubs looking for a new manager, and Rodgers' name will be on shortlists.

So the biggest single risk to Celtic's resurgence is that Rodgers decides to deal with his unfinished business in England.  Of course, if he leaves they might manage to replace him with another excellent coach.  But they might also end up with another Deila...

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

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