Wednesday 21 March 2018

Celtic are Scottish champions even before they start season but Europe will be a different story

Celtic manager Neil Lennon with the SPL trophy in May
Celtic manager Neil Lennon with the SPL trophy in May
Gary Hooper has departed to Norwich
Victor Wanyama was sold to Southampton for £12.5m

Ronnie Esplin

CELTIC find themselves in a unique position among British clubs as they survey the start of the new domestic season.

Everyone at the Parkhead clubs knows, as do their fans, rival supporters, pundits and commentators, that they will win the title.

The newly-branded Scottish Premiership was launched this week but it will remain the one-horse race it was last season.

With the absence of traditional rivals Rangers, who are still battling their way through the leagues since falling into administration and liquidation last summer, and no credible challenge from any of the top flight clubs, the Hoops will canter their way to three consecutive titles.

It says much about Scottish football that Celtic fans sing of going all the way to 10-in-a-row and no one scoffs at that prediction.

Whether Neil Lennon's side can win the treble in 2013/14 - the Scottish Cup was added to the league title last season - is debatable but most of the focus, like last season, will be on the Parkhead club's European travails.

Reaching the last-16 of the Champions League netted the Scottish champions over £22million in prize money, widening the chasm between them and the rest of Scottish football.

So did the sale of midfielder Victor Wanyama to Southampton for a reported £12.5million.

With other departures expected, Lennon has brought in three players - striker Amido Balde and defenders Steven Mouyokolo and Virgil van Dijk.

The Northern Irishman will no doubt add further to his squad which retains a core of quality. Fraser Forster, Charlie Mulgrew, Scott Brown, Kris Commons, James Forrest and Georgios Samaras are all tried and tested on the big stage.

While most clubs prepare for a "marathon and not a sprint" towards the "business end of the season" the early weeks of this campaign are crucial to Celtic's campaign.

After brushing aside part-timers Cliftonville 5-0 on aggregate in their second Champions League qualifier, the Hoops face Elfsborg with the first leg at Parkhead next Wednesday night.

The Swedish side are well into their league season and won 11-1 over two legs against Latvian side Daugava.

Celtic, though, beat Swedish side Helsingborgs in the qualifiers last season which will encourage Lennon.

The former Celtic skipper is aware of what is at stake for the club financially although he is keen not to neglect his domestic duties.

He said: "I think the money is imperative for us, or for any club really.

"But from a footballing point of view it is about the development of the players, the experience they get, and bringing their reputations and careers on.

"That is the most important thing, but the more successful you are in the competition, the money will come in gate revenues, sponsorship, television money.

"It (Champions League) is a fantastic competition and one that went well for us last year but there is no guarantee that we will qualify this year.

"We are going to have to step things up in the next week or so to be ready for Elfsborg.

"We know how important it is but I can't base my whole season on qualifying for the Champions League, I have to look beyond that."

Nevertheless, the pressure is on Celtic to get to the play-offs and then the group stages, not only for the huge financial rewards but also to keep the Hoops faithful engaged and interested.

Defeat against the Swedes would leave Celtic in the Europa League but that would be a poor substitute for some of the great nights witnessed in Europe's elite club competition.

Online Editors

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