Celtic favourites but focus on Gerrard at Rangers
Rodgers’ side in the box seat for championship but Rangers’ new manager adds interest
Scott Brown of Celtic lifts the Ladbrokes Scottish Premier League trophy in May. Photograph: Mark Runnacles/Getty
The swagger returned to Scottish football in recent days. A close battle between Aberdeen and Burnley, Hibernian’s success over the fifth-ranked team in Greece and Rangers’ victory over the fourth-best team in Croatia triggered excitement. Celtic had already taken a further step towards the Champions League with their defeat of Rosenborg. Glory, glory hallelujah.
If this wave of optimism seems rather desperate – there was a time when Scottish sides were feared on the continent – it highlights the low ebb that preceded it. The sudden notion that football north of the border was being widely disparaged in England has been hugely overplayed – and certainly in the specific context of Burnley – but has certainly played a part in the reinstatement of self-belief.
Scottish players no longer perform en masse in the upper echelons of the English top flight. Scotland’s national team have not featured in a major finals since 1998. Tribal obsessions, though, override harsh realities.
Central to excitement this weekend, and the onset of a new league season, is Steven Gerrard. He has solidified Rangers during his early games, with the consistent preaching of high standards – publicly and privately – the most notable aspect of his tenure thus far.
Whether or not Gerrard can reach anything like the status he enjoyed as a Liverpool player remains to be seen but his arrival in Glasgow is a story worth following. He faces a baptism of fire at Aberdeen in the Scottish Premiership tomorrow, given the hostility between the clubs in question.
It is debatable whether Gerrard or Brendan Rodgers has more to lose over the coming months. Whether the latter chooses to admit it or not, the appointment of his Liverpool captain at Rangers afforded a fresh dynamic – and scrutiny – to his scenario at Celtic.
The defending champions, in pursuit of an eighth title in succession, have by far the greatest resources in Scotland. That Rodgers points immediately to financial disparity when his team toil against overseas opposition means he must accept the colossal advantage as enjoyed at home.
Should Rodgers not retain the title, not least if he is overhauled by a one-time apprentice, it would represent disaster. Such a scenario is also seriously difficult to foresee.
If Gerrard cannot match the fevered expectation around Ibrox with the overseeing of major improvement, moreover, his prestige as a manager will be damaged in chapter one. His key battle will be internal; Rangers remain wholly unconvincing at boardroom level.
Gerrard’s recruitment has been solid rather than spectacular, with a view to the placing of round pegs in round holes. Pedro Caixinha, his permanent predecessor, made such a botch of signing players that the club are still – literally – paying the price.
Rodgers bore a look of mild frustration as Celtic failed to add to their squad before the Champions League qualifiers began. That position looks to have softened slightly. The delivering of successive domestic trebles has been a fine achievement for him but a lack of European progress, curiously, is almost taken as a given. Gerrard’s appearance maintains sharp focus from Celtic on a Scottish scene they might otherwise be of a mind to place in different context in Rodgers’ third season in office.
Aberdeen have rightly been buoyed by their joust with Burnley. After finishing second last season, the Pittodrie side are entitled to think it is they, rather than Celtic, that Gerrard must prioritise overtaking. This renders tomorrow’s match hugely important.
Yet Aberdeen, like Hibernian and Kilmarnock, have lost key players since the end of last season. Should Kilmarnock’s progress continue, they will challenge the league’s leading lights. Livingston, St Mirren and Hamilton can be expected to battle against relegation. Motherwell should have no such fears but may struggle to match last season’s two cup final appearances.
Any sense of a serious competition remains undermined by the appearance of three artificial playing surfaces in the 12-team division. The manufactured, unsatisfactory aspect of a league split after 33 games also remains. But for now, and after years in the doldrums, Scottish football seems of a mind to celebrate its own existence. We shall see how long that lasts.