JThe odd aspect of the 2021-22 season as far as Celtic and Rangers were concerned was that age-old enemies could paint a picture of contentment. Celebrations at home for one, praise across the continent for the other.
Rangers fans had reason to be frustrated as they left the Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán in May after the Europa League final loss to Eintracht Frankfurt, knowing their side might never have a better chance of landing a European trophy, but there was pride in an outstanding race. Back in Glasgow, Celtic celebrated a 10th win from 11 attempts. It was an era of national dominance by the Glasgow Greens and Whites, a point that is not generally recognised, including by their own support.
At the dawn of a new season, the Rangers are in the midst of a necessary revolution. Sales of Joe Aribo and Calvin Bassey have fueled a recruitment campaign, seen by seven first-team options – John Souttar, Tom Lawrence, Malik Tillman, Antonio Colak, Rabbi Matondo, Ben Davies and Ridvan Yilmaz – arriving at Ibrox.
There is excitement about it, but that should be tempered by the fact that Rangers are the club catching up. Ange Postecoglou’s eye-catching progress through the city lifted Celtic to Scotland’s top side, and the Aussie didn’t need to preside over major summer surgery, with the permanent signings of Cameron Carter- Vickers and Jota, both on loan successfully, the priority ahead of the new season.
The plot surrounds what Giovanni van Bronckhorst can offer as a challenge. The Dutchman may provide mitigating circumstances for the events of last season – he arrived mid-season and European efforts have taken their toll – but the fact remains that Rangers have failed to defend the Premiership from a top position at Christmas.
It would be unfair to congratulate the Rangers squad on their progress in the Europa League while castigating the manager for throwing the league away. Nevertheless, firm statements about whether or not Van Bronckhorst is suitable for this work cannot yet be made.
The former Rangers midfielder will rely on the connections of his sporting director, Ross Wilson, whose signing record is spotty. He was the man, after all, who cried loudly when Amad Diallo and Aaron Ramsey arrived at Ibrox in January. Four months, negligible impact, and a title giveaway later, both out quietly.
In Wilson’s defence, the Rangers starting the new season have more options. By contrast, having turned Celtic’s situation around within months, it’s Postecoglou’s job to further develop the existing players. Kyogo Furuhashi, Scotland’s most gifted attacking player, will inevitably attract lucrative offers if he maintains his fitness and form. Matt O’Riley, Jota, Carter-Vickers and Reo Hatate delivered enough last season to suggest they will improve in familiar surroundings. Celtic have the ability to concede goals, but a regularly relentless attacking style is able to make up for that.
While it seems unfair to portray the championship as a two-horse race, it reflects the sad reality. We are racing towards the 40th anniversary of a club outside the Old Firm winning the Scottish top flight. The scale with which Celtic and Rangers continue to spend means the race is unlikely to end anytime soon. The embarrassing European elimination of Motherwell by Sligo Rovers did nothing for the wider reputation of the Scottish game.
Hearts may seek to close the gap on European revenue – the Edinburgh club are guaranteed to play in the group stage – but scheduling challenges may take some getting used to Robbie Neilson and his players. Presumably Aberdeen will improve under Jim Goodwin, but serious questions remain over the direction of Hibs.
A dark mark against Celtic’s last campaign – and a recurring feature in their recent history – was their struggles in Europe. By the time Bodø/Glimt bundled the Postecoglou side out of the Conference League, they had been kicked out of three separate continental competitions. Celtic have earned their right to feature in the Champions League proper, but how well they can compete will be a stern test not only for the manager but also for the players who have hero status at home. Postecoglou’s own aspirations will not stop at Glasgow; he will see Europe’s premier club tournament as an opportunity.
First, internal affairs. Just based on what happened not too long ago, Celtic should be the favorites to win.