Rivals wait to pounce as Celtic's problems build
Celtic returned to winning ways after the worst week during Brendan Rodgers' time in charge. Defeat to Hearts along with a Champions League exit courtesy AEK Athens put Celtic and Rodgers under pressure entering Saturday's Glasgow derby with Partick Thistle. Their performance left much to be desired but, despite a late scare when Partick equalised, the Bhoys managed to net twice to secure a 3-1 win and a place in the League Cup quarter-finals.
Rodgers was unhappy albeit relieved to win after a difficult week. The Irishman described Celtic's press as too passive. His team weren't the usual aggressive, intense side supporters know and love.
The manager also took time to backtrack on his previous criticism of the board. He'd expressed frustration, saying the club needed signings across the line. After Saturday's win, he said new blood was still wanted but if it wasn't coming, he'd make do. Rodgers even hinted at a conspiracy to dismantle his relationship with the board, presumably a dig at the media.
With cracks beginning to emerge in Celtic's Scottish football dominance, attention turns to the chasing pack. Who can step up to challenge the champions' seven-year reign? Aberdeen were the main challengers in the past few seasons. Steven Gerrard brought confidence to Rangers. Edinburgh duo, Hearts, who beat Celtic last weekend, and Hibernian, managed by former Celtic boss Neil Lennon, sniff opportunity, too.
Every Celtic rival made a good start to the season. Aberdeen and Rangers only dropped points to each other. Hearts won two from two, including the win over Celtic last weekend. Hibs drew away to St Johnstone on the opening weekend then beat Motherwell 3-0 last week. The Steelmen sit second in the table. The top clubs all won in the weekend's Scottish League Cup action, as well.
Aberdeen are SPL runners-up four years running. If Celtic are weakened, the Dons must believe they can close the nine-point gap between the sides from last season. However, Aberdeen haven't won the title since 1985 when Sir Alex Ferguson was in charge. That was the last time the league was won by anyone other than Celtic or Rangers. After 34 years, it'll take something special from Derek McInnes' men to land the title.
The two Edinburgh sides join the hunt. Hearts ended Rodgers long unbeaten record as Celtic manager last season. Celtic had gone 69 domestic games without defeat before falling 4-0 at Tynecastle. The Jam Tarts followed up with another win to start this season, heaping pressure on Celtic and Rodgers.
Hibs are in a great spell under Neil Lennon. The club are traditional underachievers but the Irishman saw them promoted then led them to a fourth-place finish last term. This season began well, with a decent European run before falling to Molde last midweek. Daryl Horgan's an excellent signing. He popped up with a goal and an assist on his full debut in the League Cup win over Ross County.
While Aberdeen, Hearts and Hibs all hold strong hopes for the season ahead, the biggest challenge to Celtic's eighth successive title comes from Ibrox. Rangers finished third in both seasons following promotion. Since their return, Gers have struggled in Old Firm games. In the league, they've lost six times, drawn twice. In addition, Rodgers' team dispatched them in three cups. Some defeats were heavy. Celtic won by at least four goals on four occasions.
It's still too early to confirm the tables have turned although Rangers look improved since Gerrard's arrival. The former Liverpool star guided Rangers through three rounds of Europa League qualifiers, took four points from their opening two league games despite being reduced to ten men in both then comfortably negotiated a difficult League Cup tie away to Kilmarnock. The Light Blues have been faultless this season. The more matches they win, the more their confidence increases. They're beginning to believe in their ability to challenge Rodgers and Celtic.
The Hoops' struggles may turn out to be nothing more than an early-season blip. Following their European exit, Celtic answered Rodgers' pleas, signing Manchester City's Aussie winger Daniel Arzani on loan. A few weeks remain in the transfer window. Rodgers would like a few more bodies. Whether he gets them is anyone's guess.
Over the last two seasons, the Bhoys showed few weaknesses. When they did, no one exposed them. This season feels different. Rangers look like a completely new side. Aberdeen, Hearts and Hibs all have reason to believe they can close on Celtic. The SPL may be the most competitive it's been in decades.
For now, Celtic remain on their perch. They've walked the walk and talked the talk for seven years. Now rivals are queuing up to knock them down and shut them up. If ever there was a season to focus on Scottish football, this is it.