Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers admits his team’s domination of the domestic game is facing a greater challenge than in his two previous treble-winning campaigns but claims that he relishes the searching examination of their credentials ahead of today’s visit from Premiership leaders Kilmarnock.
The Ayrshire club are the fourth different side to top the elite division this season and with Rangers and Hearts still in the mix and Aberdeen showing signs of recovering their form, any neutrals yearning for the sport to be less predictable appear to have had their wish granted.
The champions remain favourites to claim an eighth successive title in 2018/19 but Rodgers accepts that they will have their work cut out to do so and he welcomes the chase.
“I’ve really enjoyed it in a different way to other seasons,” he said. “You want it to be competitive but you can only ever control yourselves.
“That’s what we try to do but it’s great when there’s competition because that allows you to improve. If you look across the league, Kilmarnock are up there on merit, Rangers have improved, Aberdeen will always be strong and they have a couple of games in hand.
“Hearts and Hibs are two big clubs and maybe results have fallen away a bit recently but they’ve still got good squads with good managers. It’s a good league and a great one to be involved in.”
Bookmakers offered odds of 5,000-1 on Kilmarnock ending 54 years of hurt by becoming champions of Scotland but Rodgers refuses to rule them out and agreed with Rugby Park chairman Billy Bowie that they have earned the right to believe they can emulate unfancied Leicester City, who won the English Premier League in 2016, by finishing on top of the pile.
“Leicester, who were also 5,000-1, showed it can be done,” he said. “What Leicester did was make the impossible possible if you have good players.
“What they have at Kilmarnock is experienced players and a mix of youngsters in there as well. Some of the boys have good experience and they have worked very well together.”
When Steve Clarke replaced Lee McCulloch as manager of Kilmarnock 14 months ago, they were at the bottom of the table, having harvested only three points from eight fixtures, conceding goals in each of them.
Now only Celtic have a better defensive record in the top tier and Rodgers credits Clarke for the way he has worked rigorously to ensue that the whole of his team is greater than the sum of its parts.
“Steve and I are both what you would call coaching managers,” he said. “We like to be on the grass – or the Astroturf – with the players and feel them close and help them develop. That’s our natural habitat.
“He’s done a great job and really galvanised the club and the team. The biggest credit you can give Steve and his players is that it’s not a surprise how well they’ve done.
“If you’ve watched them over the last year they’ve been consistently really, really good at getting results. Where they are now, okay they’ve played a couple more games than other teams but they’ve got the results and the points.
“They are a very difficult team to play against. They defend very deep, they’re tight and well organised and compact. You need to be very patient when playing against them and you need to be able to move the ball quickly.”
Kilmarnock have won more Premiership points than any other club in 2018 and Rodgers acknowledges that achievement.
“I think it says everything about [Clarke’s] ability, firstly to organise and then to improve and develop players – and then to find the management skills to consistently get the best out of them,” he said.
“He’s getting the best out of experienced guys like Gary Dicker and Chris Burke, who’ve been around the block and understand the game. And he’s getting the best out of Stephen O’Donnell and Gary Taylor, too.
“Steve’s nurtured and developed them and shown his coaching qualities. He’s doing a fantastic job. It’s not an accident how consistent they are and now they have a belief they can win games.”
Kilmarnock have lost only once in 11 games and haven’t surrendered three points away from home since being unfortunate to go down 3-2 at Hibernian on 15 September. That is enough for Rodgers to accept that they are genuine title contenders… for now.
“Well, why not?” he said. “That’s what they will think themselves if they can continue with that kind of consistency. I think that when there are just ten games to go you look closer at it because then there’s a different pressure with everything else that comes into play, which is totally different and new if you haven’t been in that situation before.
“But you can’t argue with what Kilmarnock have done over a sustained period, which has been absolutely brilliant.”