Celtic’s 2-0 win over Aberdeen at Pittodrie in February was hailed by Brendan Rodgers as a “signpost” victory directing his side towards another title.
All roads led to yesterday’s 5-0 thrashing of Rangers. It doesn’t, in the final analysis, matter how they got there. Clinching a seventh successive title with a 5-0 home win over your fiercest rivals is some way to respond to those who view Celtic as having gone backwards in the second season of Rodgers’ reign.
It’s true they have made more stuttering progress in a season always set to prove more difficult. However, for the second year in succession Celtic wrapped up a title win with a 5-0 win.
It’s just this time they had to wait a bit longer. Rather than tying things up a couple of weeks before Easter, as happened last year against Hearts at Tynecastle, Celtic have had to wait until the end of April. This alone suggests Celtic found the going more challenging this time around.
It was a lot to ask Celtic to replicate last season’s ‘invincible’ league campaign. The Parkhead side’s title win has been less emphatic during this campaign and has included three defeats – a 4-0 thrashing against Hearts at Tynecastle on 17 December, a 1-0 setback at Kilmarnock on 3 February and a 2-1 defeat at Hibernian last weekend.
The difference in number of draws is a more vivid illustration of Celtic having been made to work a bit harder this season. There were only four during the last league campaign compared to nine this time. While they racked up a record 106 points last season, the most Celtic can secure this season is 87.
That’s still pretty impressive of course. Aberdeen and Rangers, second and third last season, will finish closer to Celtic this time in terms of points. Hibs, too, are ‘only’ 12 points adrift. However, there has never been much evidence of a genuine title race.
Rodgers has already singled out a 3-0 win over Aberdeen at Pittodrie in October as being the most pivotal league result of the season. It meant Celtic pulled three points clear of Derek McInnes’ side following a few weeks where the champions were reckoned to be stumbling slightly.
The aforementioned and nearly as impressive 2-0 win at the same ground in February saw Celtic go nine points clear of Rangers with Aberdeen further behind in third. It all felt academic after that. Kieran Tierney’s thrilling run up the left in support of Moussa Dembele to slam home Celtic’s second that afternoon summed up their desire and panache. This might be the goal of Celtic’s season in terms of style, significance and the fact the boyhood fan celebrated by running all the way back again to clutch his badge in front of the visiting supporters.
Celtic have not always turned on the same style. There have been four 0-0 draws since December, three of them at home against Rangers, St Johnstone and Dundee. Callum McGregor’s fifth goal yesterday was Celtic’s 70th in the league this season. They struck 106 last season. Five-nil has been a popular outcome. Games have finished with this scoreline on five occasions at Celtic Park, not every time to the home fans’ satisfaction.
Celtic lost 5-0 to Paris Saint Germain in the Champions League. But they have gone nap two times in the league, once in the Scottish Cup against Brechin City and once in Champions League qualifying against Astana. Kilmarnock and Rangers felt the force, as did Motherwell, who managed a goal in a 5-1 defeat in December. So it’s not as if the Celtic fans have been starved of entertainment and, together with yesterday, the 3-2 win at Ibrox last month with ten men will live long in their memories.
Celtic head to Tynecastle this weekend with the aim of putting right the one true disappointment of the league season: the 4-0 reversal in December. But the mark of champions is an ability to bounce back. They won their next three league matches after this first domestic defeat of Rodgers’ reign without conceding a goal. They have shown their worth again by responding to the recent 2-1 defeat by Hibs with a trouncing of their local rivals.
There’s a feeling Celtic have been treading water this season. The big worry for the chasing pack is they are set to improve again. Top performers this season have been winger James Forrest, who has his highest goal tally for the season of 17, the tireless, demanding skipper Scott Brown, Tierney and McGregor. If Moussa Dembele leaves then Celtic will have the funds to replace him. If he stays, he looks to be only getting better, if he can stay clear of injury.
Either way, there’s a player who has broken through this season who is exciting Celtic fans to a possibly greater degree than Dembele – Odsonne Edouard, who scored twice yesterday. The 20-year-old striker is on loan from Paris Saint Germain but Rodgers, pictured, expressed confidence he will still be around next season. The player himself stressed he “loved” Celtic and would like to stay if the two parties agree.
Another Frenchman, Olivier Ntcham, has established himself in the side this season. Only 22, he posted another superb display yesterday. Norway defender Kristoffer Ajer, meanwhile, has emerged as a first-choice centre-back and has just turned 20.
Recognising that three such central contributors to the title-securing romp over Rangers are still so young provides yet more cheer for Celtic fans, not that they need it.