As the final whistle blew, the only surprise was that it had taken so long. Celtic wrapped up the Scottish Premier League in the first weekend of April with a conclusive 5-0 victory over Hearts at Tynecastle. There are still eight matches remaining and they would’ve claimed it earlier were it not for a late concession in the most recent Old Firm derby.
Celtic have won 28 and drawn two of their 30 fixtures in 2016/17. If they avoid defeat, they will join the likes of Arsenal, Milan, Juventus, Benfica, Porto and Ajax in going through an entire league championship winning season unbeaten. They face Rangers in the Scottish Cup semi-final in three weeks time and, after the disappointments of last season, a domestic treble is on the horizon.
It’s a huge contrast to twelve months ago, when Celtic floundered in Europe and lost in the last four of both cup competitions, including a humiliating penalty defeat against Rangers at Hamden Park.
Personally, it must be especially gratifying for Brendan Rodgers whose own reputation was in tatters following the withering end to his time at Liverpool. After agonisingly missing out on the Premier League crown at Anfield, the Northern Irishman has earned his first league title as a manager in record-breaking fashion.
Although it is Celtic’s sixth championship in a row – and as such that cannot be the barometer of success – Rodgers has undeniably improved the team. His two marquee signings – Moussa Dembele and Scott Sinclair – have delivered, while good coaching and astute tactical instruction has improved the standard of football they play immeasurably.
Celtic face a maximum of ten more games in the remaining weeks, but as satisfying as a slice of Scottish football history would be for Rodgers, he arguably has a more pressing and vital obligation in the summer. The hoops enter the Champions League qualifying stages in July and must overcome three rounds just to make the group phase proper. Rodgers spoke with Sky Sports after Sunday’s game, and while his players were still basking in glory, he acknowledged that he may have to rest some of them in the upcoming weeks to prepare for an early reconvening.
“Our focus is now for the semi-final but I have to think beyond that. I need to protect the players, to make sure they are fresh (for July), and of course we want to win every game. The most important thing is my duty of care to the players.”
Rodgers’ long-term planning illustrates where both the club’s and his own priorities lie. Although the manner of their victory has been impressive, Celtic were always going to win the SPL. The vacuum left by Rangers’ demise made domestic hegemony a foregone conclusion for both of his predecessors Neil Lennon and Ronny Deila. Despite returning to the top flight after years in the wilderness, the dysfunctional Ibrox club – who employ washed up former Premier League defenders Clint Hill and Philippe Senderos and still rely on 37 year-old Kenny Millar for goals – look no nearer to challenging their crosstown rivals anytime soon.
Given the current sorry state of the Scottish game, the only true yardstick of progress for Celtic is in Europe’s top tournament. Lennon took them to the last 16 in 2013, but struggled to touch those heights during the rest of his spell in charge. Deila won consecutive titles, but due to various humiliations on the continent, his two year stint was considered an unmitigated failure. Dumped out of the Champions League in the play-off round by Swedish side Malmo, they then finished bottom of their Europa League group without registering a single win.
Celtic at least reached the group stage of this year’s Champions League. A landmark victory wasn’t forthcoming, but they produced some stylish and silky football in creditable draws with Borussia Monchengladbach and Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. That was augmented by a 7-0 trouncing in the Camp Nou against Messi, Suarez, Neymar and company; although that humbling appears less embarrassing given Paris Saint-Germain’s incomprehensible collapse from 4-0 up against Barcelona a few weeks ago.
Rodgers has already pinpointed the need for two or three additions with a glance towards next season’s edition and putting a better foot forward. The problem for Celtic is that competing in the transfer market and on the field against club’s from the continent’s top leagues is growing exceedingly difficult. The SPL’s television rights deal of ranks 18th out of the most lucrative in Europe. The paltry sum of £18.75 million a year is obviously dwarfed by the Premier League’s £1.7 billion contract, but they also lag behind the top divisions in Sweden, Greece and Denmark (a smaller country).
It will be intriguing to see what the future holds for Rodgers. From his own point of view, he probably realises that he’s unlikely to fulfil his career objectives in Glasgow. Although he has spoken confidently about reestablishing Celtic as a European force, it will be virtually impossible to contend with the biggest clubs given Scottish football’s current climate.
While Celtic supporters recognise the work Rodgers has put in, the outward perception will likely be dismissive unless there is tangible reward in a European context. Most won’t closely analyse the improvements in fitness, the more sophisticated game-plan, the technical strides made by many and the blossoming of young talent that he’s overseen. Under a Guardian piece written by Ewan Murray praising the 44 year-old, one commenter expressed the view that his grandmother would win the league with Celtic.
When Andre Villas Boas won the Russian Premier League with Zenit Saint Petersburg, he was derided for supposedly shirking a real challenge elsewhere – and that was in a league with less concentrated quality and more exposure in a European context.
The harsh reality is that you get no credit for winning the Scottish title. Rodgers surely has aspirations of returning to the top end of the Premier League one day, but in order to do so and for his time north of the border to have truly been valuable, he needs more than securing an un-losable championship. Otherwise, he’s eating away at time.