Celtic set for latest title defence

Glasgow (AFP) –


The new Scottish Premiership season starts this weekend, but the race for the top prize is already over in some people's eyes.

Celtic's capture of the Scottish Cup in May completed a rare treble and rounded off a record-breaking campaign which saw the Glasgow giants finish without tasting defeat domestically.

It was a remarkable debut season for manager Brendan Rodgers, who left the pain of his departure from Liverpool behind to preside over a campaign that saw Celtic shatter a number of club and league records.

The margin of their victory in the league - 30 points above nearest challengers Aberdeen - meant Celtic were always going to start the season as the team to beat.

However, some bookmakers have already paid out on bets backing the Hoops to win their seventh title in a row after rivals Rangers, who were expected to mount a more credible challenge in their second season back in the top flight, were knocked out of the Europa League in the opening qualifying round by minnows Progres Niederkorn of Luxembourg.

The Scottish champions, on the other hand, have started this season as they finished the last.

Ties with Linfield and Rosenberg have been negotiated without conceding a goal to book their place in the Champions League play-off round.

Europe was the only negative for Rodgers last season as the Hoops failed to register a win in a tough Champions League group containing Barcelona, Manchester City and Borussia Moenchengladbach.

But after making such an impact in his first season in Scottish football, there is a belief amongst the Celtic support that Rodgers can now help the club make a bigger impression on the European stage while continuing to dominate domestically.

"I know the expectancy. Sometimes you can make a jump like we made last year but it shouldn't be a jump that hurts the team or the club," the Northern Irish manager, whose side will host Hearts on Saturday, said.

"I learned my lesson with that at Liverpool. You go from eighth to seventh to second then all of a sudden you set expectations which become unrealistic.

"It is whether we keep improving that counts and there are always things to strive for."

Celtic may have made the single biggest acquisition of the summer when they paid £4.5 million ($5.91m) to bring in French midfielder Olivier Ntcham from Manchester City, but it's Old Firm rivals Rangers who have been the biggest spenders of the summer as Pedro Caixinha continues his rebuilding job at Ibrox.

The Portuguese manager has added nine players to his squad, with 10 heading in the opposite direction, as the 46-year-old looks to stamp his authority on the club he joined from Qatari side Al-Gharafa in March.

Despite suffering an embarrassing European exit at the first hurdle, Caixinha is exuding confidence as they prepare for Sunday's opener away to Motherwell.

"I always think that, when I'm working at a club, my players are the best, my squad is the best and my club is the best," the Gers gaffer said.

Aberdeen have proven to be Celtic's main challengers in recent years and the decision of manager Derek McInnes to reject the overtures of Sunderland in the summer has given everyone a boost at Pittodrie.

The Dons seemed to have been weakened by the departures of several key players, but McInnes has made some shrewd acquisitions to a squad that finished runners-up to Celtic in every competition last season.

The Scottish manager will be determined to put his side's failure to qualify for the Europa League behind him as he attempts to claim some silverware in this campaign.

Fixtures (1400 GMT unless otherwise stated)


Celtic v Hearts (1130), Dundee v Ross County, Hibernian v Partick Thistle, Kilmarnock v St Johnstone


Motherwell v Rangers (1130), Aberdeen v Hamilton