Celtic will be facing a different beast next season in a Steven Gerrard-led Rangers. Patrick McPartlin looks at what Brendan Rodgers’ side need to do to stay on top
Having won a seventh consecutive league title, and with Rangers still locked in a three way battle to finish the “best of the rest”, one would assume Celtic might be feeling rather confident heading into next season.
The Hoops will again look to go as far as they can in Europe, as well as planning another assault on the three domestic trophies.
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Areas that need strengthened
Whatever else he does with his close season, Brendan Rodgers will almost certainly shake things up in the Celtic defence.
Erik Sviatchenko looks likely move on, despite his contract running until the summer of 2020. Jozo Simunovic, while contracted until 2021, has been linked with a series of clubs since last summer, including Spartak Moscow, Newcastle United, Lazio and Burnley and he could follow Sviatchenko out the Parkhead exit door.
There are questions too over Marvin Compper, who turns 33 next month and has played just 83 minutes of first team football, in a Scottish Cup match against Morton, since signing a two-and-a-half year deal in January.
Rodgers is in the market for attacking reinforcements, having said prior to January that he needed to reshape his squad. Moussa Dembele has been linked with numerous clubs, including Marseille, and the Ligue 1 side may return for the Frenchman in the summer. Should he depart, Rodgers would be left with Leigh Griffiths as his only out-and-out senior striker. On-loan PSG striker Odsonne Edouard is keen to stay and has hit a run of form in recent matches, and the champions have a buy-out option as part of the loan arrangement.
Securing his services on a permanent basis would be one option, but given the string of forwards - Sardar Azmoun, Lennart Thy, Rhian Brewster to name a few - linked with the Hoops in recent months, Rodgers appears intent on bolstering his strikeforce regardless.
Which players could leave?
As mentioned, Erik Sviatchenko’s time at Parkhead would appear to be drawing to a close, while Scott Allan is virtually expected to return permanently to loan club Hibs. Nadir Ciftci is another who could be on his way out despite having another 12 months left on his deal.
Nir Bitton, who has been sidelined for some time with a knee injury, has a contract until May 2020 but was linked with a return to his homeland and Maccabi Haifa last month. Cristian Gamboa could leave in search for regular first team football while the goalkeeper situation is uncertain. Celtic were linked with Motherwell’s Trevor Carson in January but had a trio of bids rejected. Rodgers has admitted he’d be interested in a permanent switch for on-loan Dundee ‘keeper Scott Bain while Dorus de Vries, initially back-up to Craig Gordon, has found himself playing third fiddle recently.
Patrick Roberts’ loan is up at the end of June, while Tom Rogic could be the subject of big money offers if he impresses for Australia during this summer’s World Cup.
Should Celtic focus on Europe?
Some of the bigger clubs in the English Premier League have the luxury of rotating their squads to deal with European competition and the league campaign.
However, this is largely because they have the playing pools to be able to do so.
A quick glance at the substitute benches for Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool on a weekly basis shows six or seven regular internationals.
In their 1-0 loss to West Bromwich Albion at the weekend, Spurs had 254 combined international caps on the bench.
By contrast, the total number of caps among the Celtic substitutes for the 3-1 win over Hearts on Sunday was seven, six of them belonging to Stuart Armstrong.
Celtic will undoubtedly be looking to go further in Europe than they managed this season and, with a kinder draw if they reach the Champions League group stages, along with two or three shrewd signings, could well manage it.
It’s a given that Celtic will channel a lot of energy into their European fixtures. But they won’t relinquish their stranglehold on the domestic front in the hopes of advancing further in the Champions League or Europa League.
Should Celtic’s spending levels match Rodgers’ first season in charge?
Celtic spent at least £7.6 million on players in Brendan Rodgers’ first season in charge: £3.5m on Scott Sinclair; £2.8m on Eboue Kouassi and £500,000 for Moussa Dembele.
Kristoffer Ajer arrived for £800,000 albeit a deal was agreed during Ronny Deila’s tenure.
There were also undisclosed deals for Cristian Gamboa and Dorus de Vries.
The following season, there were loan deals for Patrick Roberts, Odsonne Edouard, Charly Musonda and Scott Bain. Players brought in for undisclosed fees included Jonny Hayes, Kundai Benyu, Olivier Ntcham, Marvin Compper and Jack Hendry.
In that first season, Celtic more than got their money’s worth with Sinclair and Dembele, while Ajer has stepped up this season. Kouassi is almost certainly a long-term project and didn’t look out of place against Zenit St Petersburg in the Europa League, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him feature more in 2018/19.
This season, Ntcham and Edouard have been the pick of the bunch, albeit the midfielder has struggled with consistency and the on-loan PSG man took a while to get going.
Despite that, Celtic still won the League Cup, league title and are aiming to make it an historic double treble by defeating Motherwell in the Scottish Cup final later this month.
In terms of spending levels, there’s no guarantee that Celtic would be able to compete adequately in Europe as well as on a domestic front by spending £7.6 million again. The calibre of player is the crucial factor.
Hibs showed this by securing Florian Kamberi, Jamie Maclaren and Scott Allan on loan in January, with the trio being instrumental in the Easter Road side’s impressive post-Christmas form.
Rodgers will know from experience that any players coming in have to be up to the challenge, whether they cost £5 million, £10 million or arrive on a free.
While progressing to the latter stages of the Champions League is unlikely due to the quality of teams around them, a decent run in the Europa League is within reach.
Celtic’s experience in Europe this past season against the likes of Anderlecht, Astana and Zenit St Petersburg will have given the the Northern Irishman some indication of what he needs to bring in to bridge the gap.
What is the likely threat from Rangers?
The short answer is that it’s impossible to tell at this moment in time. Steven Gerrard’s first day at Ibrox is on June 1. He has to make a decision on several players - some on loan, others out on loan. It’s fair to say that there’s some amount of deadwood to sift through, and he’ll want to bring in his own players.
As well as Rangers, Celtic will face a renewed challenge from Aberdeen, Hibs and conceivably Hearts, Motherwell and Kilmarnock, who will also be looking to strengthen this summer.
What Rangers could benefit from is the “new manager bounce” and the potential for one or two big-name signings - Martin Skrtel has already been mentioned, as has Dominic Solanke of Liverpool. Gerrard’s connections, and the likelihood of a good number of comings and goings at Ibrox this summer, will see more players linked with the Light Blues.
Dave King is of the opinion that Rangers only need to win one title in order to end Celtic’s dominance. While the Ibrox club’s aim is to close the gap on their rivals, the aforementioned teams - Aberdeen, Hibs, Kilmarnock etc - will also provide a challenge. Hibs have won two out of three against Rangers this season; Kilmarnock have beaten the Gers home and away and there have been wins at Ibrox for Hamilton and St Johnstone while Dundee defeated them at Dens.
Rangers really need to install themselves as the best of the rest before attempting to challenge Celtic for titles. Expecting Gerrard to manage both in his first season would appear to be a very tall order.