IT SAYS everything about where Celtic’s priorities lie that manager Neil Lennon doesn’t attempt to disguise where the defence of their title currently stands on his “to do” list.
Celtic’s league campaign begins with the home encounter against Ross County on Saturday, a match sandwiched between the home and away Champions League assignments against Swedish champions Elfsborg. Lennon would happily accept two wins and a defeat from these games... providing the loss was a weekend reverse. Domestic football is of strictly secondary importance to taking a step closer to the Champions League group stages.
Lennon agrees the league season is no more than sneaking up on his club. “It is the same as last year with the qualifying games. We haven’t really touched on the league campaign as yet, and it kicks off in a week’s time. But we will be ready,” he says.
As ready as they need to be, that is. If the parallels follow with last season, to skoosh a third straight title Celtic won’t require to hit their full stride until the turn of the year – by which time they will hope to have replicated last season’s group success in the Champions League. That is simply how it is with no Rangers, and therefore no credible challenge, on the home front.
Indeed, there is a real curiosity to the position they find themselves in as the only superpower in Scotland’s top flight. Celtic enter the new SPFL Premiership unquestionably weakened from the end of last season. Lennon has lost two of his A-list players, with Gary Hooper’s £5.2 million move to Norwich City following Victor Wanyama’s £12.5m sale to Southampton. Yet, there is reason to believe these departures need not prevent Celtic extending the daylight between themselves and whoever finishes a far-off second.
Hooper and Wanyama, at times, latterly betrayed signs that they might be wearying of an ultimately predictable and unchallenging league grind. The slots their exits have opened up will be occupied by players who could not presume to be so established and therefore not performing in such comfort zones. As yet, with target man Amido Balde and defender Virgil van Dijk the only headline captures for the club over the summer, neither Hooper nor Wanyama has effectively been replaced. If they are to be, then those who seek to fill the gaps they have left must be focused on proving themselves on a weekly basis and not just high-octane European nights.
Lennon says he embraces the challenge of recasting the team, even within the limitations of Celtic’s business plan which, he claims, does not preclude a ready-made performer to complement the policy of signing rough diamonds to be polished up and sold on for dazzling profits.
“We are looking for the finished article because it is no secret we were interested in [Hamburg striker] Artjoms Rudnevs. I don’t know if that deal will materialise, from what we are hearing he is happy where he is. He would cost a lot of money but we were actively involved in bringing him in because he would have been an ideal replacement for someone like Gary. You don’t want to break the wage structure too much but a player of that ilk and price would cost a few quid in terms of transfer and wages [with a deal covering both believed to be in the region of £8m] but we’ve got people here who negotiate contracts very well and try and keep it within the structure of where we want it to be.”