Scottish Premier League: Can Steven Gerrard give old boss Brendan Rodgers a run as Old Firm chairman?
Celtic kick off their defence of the Scottish Premiership title on Saturday afternoon when they will unveil the Championship flag in front of a packed house at Celtic Park prior to their match against Livingston. Their Glasgow rivals, Rangers will have to wait a day longer before new boss, Steven Gerrard makes his league bow with a trip up north to last seasons runners-up, Aberdeen.
Celtic cruised to their seventh successive league title last season, finishing nine points clear of Aberdeen and 12 clear of Rangers who came third. Despite winning the league by a comfortable margin, Celtic looked a little more human as they lost four league games on their way to the title which almost seemed disappointing in comparison to their undefeated league win in Brendan Rodgers first season at the club.
Rangers have been much busier in the transfer market with Gerrard bringing in ten players with expectations of a few more arrivals before the transfer window closes. Celtic have only made two signings so far and both were permanent deals for players they had on loan last season. Celtic are also expected to make more signings before the window closes but who they bring in will depend on their European progress.
It's difficult to say how much better Celtic will be this season as they haven't brought in any new blood. However, their squad is quite young and under Rodgers, a number of them have already improved greatly and they will be hoping for more improvement in the season ahead. Rangers will hope to be better than they were last year and realistically if they aren't Gerrard won't last long. The club has high expectations and they have failed to meet them over the last two years.
The big story ahead of the new season is the fact that Brendan Rodgers and Steven Gerrard will be aiming to be involved in a title race again. This isn't their first title race as they went close to winning the Premier League in 2013/14 when they were both on the same side with Liverpool but they fell short on that occasion. This time the two will be on opposite sides and unless Aberdeen or Hibs can produce something amazing then at least one of them will come out on top.
Rodgers is the much more experienced man. He has his years in England and Wales with Watford, Reading, Swansea City, Liverpool and then the last two years of being in charge of Celtic behind him. For Gerrard, this is his first job in management after a spell in charge of Liverpool's youth team. All we really have to go on are Rangers early European games and after the disaster last season, it's fair to say he has certainly made progress beyond the side that Pedro Caixanha led to defeat against Progres Niederkorn.
Celtic fans love Rodgers and many would already regard him to be among the best managers the club has ever had behind Jock Stein. Rodgers is an Irish man who grew up supporting Celtic in Carnlough, County Antrim and that already has him onside with the Hoops fans. The fact he has won back to back trebles puts him on an even higher pedestal and he's already well on his way to a statue outside Celtic Park.
Similarly, Gerrard is a popular draw with the Ibrox faithful. Ideally, they would like a Rangers man in the hot seat but quite a few have been appointed and failed over the last few years. Gerrard is a big name in the game and the belief is that his reputation will help attract a better calibre of player and that as the players will respect him, they will go that extra mile for the Liverpool legend.
As mentioend, Celtic haven't done a lot of business with just two loanees fully signed and on board. Odsonne Edouard was signed for a club record fee of over £9 million while Scott Bain has come in on a free transfer. Bain won't be the first choice but he's nine years younger than Craig Gordon and when the Scottish international hangs up his gloves, there's a chance he will be well placed to take over. Edouard will be a starter and alongside Moussa Dembele with Leigh Griffiths as backup, Celtic might just have the three best strikers in Scottish football.
Celtic have done well to avoid losing any of their regular starters this summer. Erik Sviatchenko and Nadir Ciftci have been moved on with the highest profile departure being Stuart Armstrong. Armstrong did well for Celtic but he had lost his place and £7 million is a good return for the club. Other departures include Jamie Lindsay, Joe Thomson, Sam Wardrop and Jamie McCart but none of them were first team players so they won't have much of an impact on the team.
Celtic have been linked with Hibs', John McGinn. McGinn is a midfielder who has been in great form for the Hibees since joining from St Mirren and Rodgers believes he might be the man to take Scott Brown's place in the future. Another area that might need to be addressed is defence. Dedryck Boyata has suggested he might want to move on and that would leave Celtic short.
Rangers have been busy in the transfer market with 10 new arrivals and 14 players leaving the club. Of the new arrivals, six of them have played in all three of Rangers Europa League qualifiers (Connor Goldson, Nikola Katic, Jamie Murphy, Allan McGregor, Jon Flanagan, Ovie Ejaria) with another three making at least one appearance (Scott Arfield, Lassana Coulibaly, Ryan Kent). Gerrard hasn't been shy in going back to his former club for signings with three of his signings arriving from Anfield.
The main departure from the club was David Bates who has moved to Hamburg. Kenny Miller has also moved on and has taken a player-manager role with Livingston while Bruno Alves has returned to Serie A with Parma. With Rangers bringing in so many new signings it meant that Gerrard has had to get rid of the deadwood which has meant Fabio Cardosa, Jordan Thompson, Harry Forrester, Ryan Hardie, Carlos Pena, Michael O'Halloran, Eduardo Herrera, Joe Dodoo, Liam Kelly, Jason Holt and Dalcio have been moved on.
Gerrard and Rangers have been actively looking for another forward with Hearts, Kyle Lafferty top of the list. They are yet to reach an agreement with the Edinburgh side but there's still plenty of time until the window shuts and a deal will most likely go ahead.
Celtic's heartbeat under Brendan Rodgers has been Scott Brown. Many Celtic fans would have been happy to see Brown move on a few years ago but Rodgers has taken his game to the next level. Ironically, Rodgers has done with Brown exactly what he did with Gerrard when he managed him by moving him to a deeper role where he can start off moves with his range of passing while also protecting the back four.
In goals, Gordon has a lot of experience, similarly to Mikael Lustig at right back. Kieran Tierney has already captained both club and country at the age of just 21-years-old and he already looks like a talent that could go right to the very top. In midfield, Olivier Ntcham, James Forrest and Callum McGregor have improved a lot under Rodgers while the Celtic forwards are as good as anyone in the league.
Rangers are a bit more difficult to call as Gerrard has made so many new signings and let so many of last seasons regulars go. James Tavernier has been named club captain so Gerrard clearly has belief in the former Wigan man. Allan McGregor has a lot of experience in goal and in midfield, Ryan Jack is a veteran of the league. Alfredo Morelos had a number of issues with some poor chances wasted in games against Celtic but he has had a good preseason and looks like he is now ready to live up to his potential.
Brendan Rodgers has always been keen to put faith in and develop young talents at the club. He has already brought Kristoffer Ajer, Odsonne Edouard and Kieran Tierney into the first team. Lewis Morgan and Michael Johnston have featured a fair bit in preseason and Rodgers has indicated that there could be a future for them this season.
Rangers have got quite a few youngsters in their side. Glenn Middleton, Ross McCrorie, Ovie Ejaria, Ryan Kent and Nikola Katic are all 21 and younger. They have featured heavily in the clubs European campaign and it seems that Gerrard is keen to use youth as he gets his feet under the table at Ibrox.
Celtic will be hot favourites to retain their title and rightfully so. They have been the dominant force in Scotland over the last seven years and under Rodgers they have gone from strength to strength. In their European games, they have played some sublime football but also look to have added a bit of backbone to their game which is bad news for the rest of the league.
Steven Gerrard's arrival will be a big boost to Rangers but realistically before they can consider themselves to be a threat to Celtic they have to overcome the Aberdeen hurdle first. This will be the season they take Aberdeen's second place but that's as good as it will get for the Ibrox side. While Celtic are fielding two French youth internationals up front, Rangers are looking to add Kyle Lafferty to support Morelos which shows there is still a huge gap between the sides.
Rangers are still the club with the second highest budget in Scotland but as long as Celtic are reaching the Champions League group stages, it's going to be an almost impossible gap to bridge. The money Celtic earn from European football makes a huge difference and for now, it'll take more than Gerrard, Lafferty or anyone else to stop Brendan Rodgers and Celtic cruising to eight in a row.