Rodgers ready for his biggest Scottish Premiership test yet

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Celtic are now in a less than familiar position in second spot in the Scottish Premiership as we approach the crucial Christmas period in the campaign. The Champions do have a game in hand over new leaders the Rangers and this will be played in a few weeks against Motherwell at Celtic Park.

Hearts had set the pace in the early part of the season but after Celtic hammered them in both the League Cup semi-final and then in the Premiership, their early season form has evaporated. Injuries to key players in Craig Levein’s side is also a factor in their current form slump.

Celtic were able to move clear at the top but with the Bhoys playing in the League Cup Final yesterday – which they won by beating Aberdeen (who took care of Rangers in the other semi-final) – the opportunity was there for the Rangers to go top if they could continue to add to Hearts’ woes by winning at Tynecastle.

After going a goal down the Rangers fought back to win the match by 2-1, albeit with a controversial winning goal that television cameras showed should have been disallowed for offside. Indeed there were THREE Rangers players in an offside position but this was missed by referee Bobby Madden and his assistant. The goal stood and the Rangers held on to go top of the table, a point ahead of Celtic, having played one extra game.

Celtic’s poor start to the season has resulted in the pack at the top of the table being closer than it probably should be at this stage in the season. It does make things more interesting though and with the form that Celtic are currently displaying few fans are concerned that the league is in danger of being lost. All the Celtic supporters though are very much focused on winning the league games between now and the end of the year so we can have the luxury of a decent lead to take into the New Year.

Brendan Rodgers’ side have suffered two defeats in the league this season, away to Hearts and Kilmarnock and the target will be to make sure that there’s not a third loss anytime soon.

Steven Gerrard has brought new life to the Rangers and his target has always to keep his side in contention up to the visit of Celtic to Ibrox on 29 December, the last game before the winter break. This version of Rangers have a terrible home record against Celtic at Ibrox having lost every single time the Hoops have played there and that is something Gerrard hopes to change on 29 December. It’s easier sad than done though.

Predictably Hearts are slipping from contention but they could still have a reasonable expectation to finish high enough up the table to earn a vital Europa League spot for next season. The Jambos have already proven their credentials with that 1-0 win over Celtic at Tynecastle, even though the reverse fixture was one-sided, to say the least.

History is in the making for Celtic and after picking up the League Cup yesterday, Brendan Rodgers will have one eye on a Treble Treble which would be remarkable. The big prize though is to reach Ten in a Row in league wins and Celtic’s longest streak of title wins is within their grasp, having won seven on the bounce. Celtic’s best run came between 1965 and 1974 when the club were able to reel off nine-straight Scottish titles. This was matched by the old Rangers in the dark years of the 1990s and every Celtic fan’s dream and every Rangers supporter’s nightmare is for Celtic to ‘do the ten’.

Celtic will also be eyeing a return to the Champions League next season after their premature exit this term, forcing Rodgers and his team to watch the competition unfold with Manchester City considered the leading contenders at https://www.paddypower.com/football/uefa-champions-league for the trophy.

Celtic can’t and don’t have realistic ambitions to be among the potential winners of the Champions League but to get beyond the Group stages would be a huge achievement and perhaps the target for next season?

This month though will reveal whether Celtic can get at least a draw against Salzburg at Celtic Park under the Disco lights a week on Thursday and if they can they’ll be in the hat for the knock-out stages of the Europa League having eliminated a Bundesliga side in RB Leipzig.

To set themselves up for a decent attempt at achieving their longer term European ambition, much will depend on the transfer activity in the January window. It’s fair to say that neither transfer windows in 2018 have been successful and Brendan Rodgers is already working with his time to make sure it’s third time lucky in that regard come January. Indeed the Celtic manager revealed at the weekend that he was meeting player today to discuss a move to Celtic when the widow opens.

Celtic were not able to qualify for the group stage, suffering a dreadfully disappointing defeat at the hands of AEK Athens in the third qualifying round. The Bhoys have not progressed beyond the group stage under Rodgers since his arrival in 2016, although he and his side face a challenge even to reach the first stage of the tournament next term. UEFA can’t be accused of making it easy for the teams from the so-called smaller nations to get into their ‘Champions’ League.

This season the Scottish Premiership has almost been split into two distinct groups. There’s a clear divide between the teams at the top and the sides in the bottom six of the table. Celtic have produced quality wins against the two types of teams, hammering Hearts at home along with Dundee and St Johnstone on the road. Their consistency has not been the same as seasons past, edging out to victories over Rangers, Aberdeen and Hamilton Academical on home soil.

Poorer performances resulted in those early season defeats away at Hearts and Kilmarnock. As long as they remain dominant as they are at the moment then the Bhoys have little to fear from the sides in and around them at the top, including the Rangers.

Celtic’s early season loss of form is now well behind them. These are exciting times for the Celtic supporters.

Andy Taylor

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