Given that bookmakers are offering odds of 1/40 on Celtic defending their title crown this season, it is easy to wonder whether the Parkhead side might be lacking something in motivation on the eve of a new campaign.
However, manager Neil Lennon yesterday challenged his side to improve on last season’s performance, when they finished 16 points ahead of runners-up Motherwell. He thinks this is possible, despite the loss of two of the best players in his squad. Victor Wanyama and Gary Hooper have both departed for the Premier League in England.
Lennon has looked to replace the loss of such influential members of the team with a raft of new signings, the latest of whom trained for the first time at Lennoxtown yesterday.
Derk Boerrigter, who has joined from Ajax, is included in the squad for the match against Ross County this evening, as Celtic kick-off their league campaign at the unusual time of 5.15pm. Extra motivation will come from the knowledge that Celtic only managed to beat County once in four meetings last season.
Lennon said that Boerrigter was “in line” to start today. This should not provide a problem for a player whose high confidence levels have already been noted. “Well, he is Dutch isn’t he?” smiled the manager. “He is looking good,” he added. “We are excited about that one. It gives the squad some freshness and gives the team a bit of a jag.”
Lennon also expects his established players to kick on this season. James Forrest’s progress has been hampered by injury and the manager is eager to see the winger put together a run of appearances in what he hopes will be a front-line that can stretch defences.
Boerrigter plays on the left flank and Lennon is excited by the prospect of the pair adding width to Celtic’s play, with Georgios Samaras set to be used more through the middle this season.
“We are hoping to get Jamesie [Forrest] on the pitch more often than he was last year,” said Lennon. “It still takes him a little bit longer than others to recover between games. We will see how he is tomorrow and hopefully we can get him on the pitch. It will be good to have the two of them in the wider areas. You can’t beat a bit of pace in those areas. Sammy [Samaras] can play there as well but we see him playing more centrally this season.”
Asked specifically about the question of motivation, Lennon dismissed the theory that Celtic, in the continued absence of credible challengers, have little to play for. “I can’t buy into that,” he said. “Every year you want to see improvement and progression. We have sold two very good players and I want to see more progression in others.
“I want to see more from Forrest this year in terms of minutes on the pitch. If we get that then we know what a very good player he can be. We have brought in Van Dijk, Boerrigter, [Steven] Mouyokolo, [Amido] Balde, and I would like to see them come to the fore this season and show why we brought them here. And the ones that are here like [Joe] Ledley, Sammy, Brownie, just to keep improving, and keep looking for more consistency.”
“We have been absolutely excellent in the three years I have been here but I always want them to push for more in terms of their all-round game,” he added. “Can the likes of Joe and Brownie weigh in with more goals from midfield. Can Sammy improve on his goal tally because he is playing very well?”
Lennon confirmed that there has been no fresh interest from Nottingham Forest in Kelvin Wilson, although it is unlikely that Celtic will hear nothing more from the centre-half’s former club. “It’s as you were,” he said. “He’s a doubt for tomorrow. He’s got shin splint problems. We’re hoping he’ll be OK. He played very well on Wednesday [against Elfsborg] despite it being an unsettling phase of the month for him. But there has been no further bid.”
On the subject of further additions to the squad, Lennon said that this was unlikely to happen before their Champions League prospects become clearer after Wednesday night’s second leg against Elfsborg.
Celtic are not the only ones looking to better last season’s performance. Tonight’s opponents, Ross County, enjoyed an impressive first campaign in the top flight last year and surprised many onlookers by claiming fifth spot instead of battling relegation.
New recruit Graham Carey, who joined up with County earlier this week after being released by St Mirren in the summer and having a trial with Dundee United, believes anything less than a top-six finish in the Scottish Premiership this season will be seen as failure.
“You always want to set high benchmarks for yourself,” said Carey. “Hopefully this season we can do better than [last season] because that should be the bare minimum, especially with the way the club has progressed over the last few years, with the infrastructure, the training ground and the players they’ve brought in. The minimum requirement is to finish in the top six – less than that will be a failure I think.”
Asked what he can bring to his new club, midfielder Carey added: “Hopefully more goals and a good work ethic.
“Hopefully I can create goals as well and bring something to the final third of the pitch. It’s about revitalising myself as well and pushing on.”
The Irishman’s superb strike against Hearts was voted goal of the season in the Clydesdale Bank Premier League awards at the end of last season and Carey conceded he should be hitting those heights more often. He said: “That’s what I expect from myself and I don’t think I’ve done it enough of late. Hopefully I can do it this season.”
Finding the net at Celtic Park on the opening weekend of the season would be something of a dream start.