Scottish Premiership Preview: Who can stop Celtic?

Saturday 1st August 2020 10:00 BST

Both halves of Glasgow had previously claimed nine titles in a row before Celtic did it for a second time when last season was called to a halt in May due to the coronavirus pandemic.

As a result, bragging rights which far transcend a normal title success are at stake this season.

Neil Lennon, though, has claimed his Celtic players are not under the same pressure as they were in the previous campaign.

"I wouldn't say the pressure is off, but it's certainly not as intense," said the Celtic manager after last season's title was confirmed. "They have equalled nine now and going for 10 is something very special and something we can all look forward to."

However, Andy Walker told the Sky Sports Scottish Football podcast: "The chat about 10 in a row or whether Rangers can stop it, it will be constant. It will be every week.

"The players, the manager and the coaching staff will relish the opportunity of writing their names in history. Of course, there's a bit of pressure, there's pressure every week, but in the last few seasons they've shown they can handle it.

"Although this will be totally different with no fans, but there's a level of professionalism there that will see Celtic, especially when you look at their early fixtures, get off to a good start."

At the same time, the heat is most certainly on at Ibrox. While Steven Gerrard has been afforded time courtesy of the years of struggles on and off the pitch which preceded his arrival, the former England captain will know he has to deliver trophy success after two barren years.

"The big thing for Rangers will be continuing the form they have shown," said former Rangers striker Kris Boyd on the Scottish Football podcast.

"A lot of people will turn around and say: 'What does Steven Gerrard have to do?' Well, start the season in the exact same way they started last season. When you look back at last season, the gap was 13 points when the season was brought to a halt.

"With the same players and the same management staff, that's very difficult to turn around because you are set in your ways."

Both managers have their challenges. Rangers' title push collapsed after the new year in each of the past two seasons and, with Jermain Defoe nursing a hamstring injury, he has to keep Alfredo Morelos motivated after the previously prolific striker struggled following the winter break.

As for the champions, Lennon has signed AEK Athens goalkeeper Vasilis Barkas and will be desperate to keep Odsonne Edouard fit and at the club, particularly after Leigh Griffiths reported for pre-season short of fitness.

Meanwhile, Aberdeen and Motherwell - who finished fourth and third respectively last season - have kept the bulk of their squads intact this summer and will both be looking for similarly successful campaigns this time around.

The Dons kick off their season by entertaining Rangers at Pittodrie on Saturday lunchtime, in a match you can see live on Sky Sports Football, and according to Boyd, manager Derek McInnes "will again be looking to get into that third or fourth position, there's no doubt about that".

However, the Sky Sports pundit also warned: "If Aberdeen are going to continue to challenge for that third and fourth spot, then you are going to have to keep hold of your players."

As for Motherwell, Walker has tipped Steve Robinson's team to once again be challenging for a top-six finish this season.

"Motherwell have got this great history, they come up with goal scorers," said the ex-Celtic forward. "That's why Motherwell will be good again and of course, the big boost is having David Turnbull back.

"If he can get back to full fitness, if he can get back to the player he was before he got that terrible injury, I can see Motherwell challenging in the upper half of the top six again."

Elsewhere, Hibernian and Livingston will aim to build on impressive runs before the pandemic struck which eventually saw them end the last campaign in seventh and fifth place respectively in the table.

"Jack Ross will be looking to finish in the top six this season and he will be trying to push for a European place," said Walker. "That's what should be expected of Hibs. For too long, they have underachieved and it's a big season for everyone in Edinburgh."

Boyd believes you cannot rule out Livingston from "pushing on and being in the battle for that top six because their home form is unbelievable and I think last year, only Rangers and Celtic had better home form".

St Johnstone are also well placed to cope with the departure of manager Tommy Wright after appointing his former assistant, Callum Davidson, and maintaining a settled squad.

"I think St Johnstone will be OK, I really do," said Boyd. "It's a well-run club, everything behind the scenes, even through the pandemic, they seem to be one of the clubs that haven't really said much, they seem to be OK."

Meanwhile, St Mirren and Kilmarnock will both be looking for improvement, with the former needing to make a winning start to the campaign, according to Walker.

"They've got to try and get off to a good start, they're at home to Livingston at the weekend and if they get all three points there, it puts them on a solid footing," he said.

Killie, though, need to begin finding the back of the net with greater regularity if they are to secure a top-half finish this season, according to Boyd.

"Kilmarnock's major issue is scoring goals," said the former Scotland international. "They scored 31 goals in 30 league games last year and that's a problem. It's somewhere that Alex Dyer is going to have to address and if they can do that, I'm sure they can find themselves challenging for that top six again."

At the other end of the table, though, Ross County and Hamilton will surely be happy just to avoid the drop, although Boyd and Walker have their doubts.

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"They're [Ross County] going to have to improve on last season because I thought a lot of their games last year weren't great and if they want to get away from that relegation battle, they're going to have to improve a lot," Boyd said.

Walker thinks "this might be the year that Hamilton really struggle to get away from the bottom two".

Incredibly, the identity of the 12th team in the top flight remained uncertain going into the week of the season kick-off, with relegated Hearts' challenge to their demotion and Dundee United's promotion being considered by an arbitration panel.

The extraordinary build-up, coupled with teething problems for the coronavirus testing regime, will surely not be the end of the drama.

How the teams are shaping up...

ABERDEEN

Manager: Derek McInnes
Last season: Fourth
Chances: The Dons will be aiming for a top-three finish after following four runners-up spots on the trot with consecutive fourth-place finishes. Handing out long-term contracts to avoid another summer exodus denied them financial flexibility when the pandemic struck, but it has given McInnes continuity. The manager secured a major bonus when Jonny Hayes agreed to defer his wages for a year to facilitate a return.
Key Player: Sam Cosgrove

CELTIC

Manager: Neil Lennon
Last season: Champions
Chances: Retaining Southampton winger Mohamed Elyounoussi on another loan and signing goalkeeper Barkas on a four-year deal was a major boost, but Lennon is still probably looking for defensive cover, while facing a man-management challenge in getting striker Leigh Griffiths fit and firing. But his match-winning options in the middle of the park ensure Celtic are favourites as they seek a record 10th consecutive title.
Key Player: Odsonne Edouard

DUNDEE UTD

Manager: Micky Mellon
Last season: Championship winners
Chances: Although the pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for all clubs, United have had the strangest of preparations after Hearts poached their head coach, Robbie Neilson, and then launched a legal move to block their promotion. New boss Mellon impressed in getting Tranmere consecutive promotions, but their season is likely to pivot on Scotland striker Lawrence Shankland: if he stays he can fire them to safety and if he leaves they need to strengthen wisely with the transfer fee.
Key Player: Lawrence Shankland

HAMILTON

Manager: Brian Rice
Last season: 11th
Chances: Brian Rice has seen his squad get even more youthful with only two experienced players arriving following the departure of eight established first-teamers. Accies were improving when last season came to an abrupt halt and there are likely to be plenty of ups and downs again.
Key player: Lewis Smith

HIBERNIAN

Manager: Jack Ross
Last season: Seventh
Chances: Ross will need to use his man-management skills to maintain squad harmony after the club cut wages and a number of jobs while bringing in players, including striker Kevin Nisbet, who they bought from Dunfermline. But they should be top-six finishers if he can build on what he started last season.
Key player: Martin Boyle

KILMARNOCK

Manager: Alex Dyer
Last season: Eighth
Chances: Dyer was a popular choice as manager with the players and will aim to get close to the success he enjoyed as assistant to Steve Clarke. That will be a difficult task, but they have enough experience to avoid the drop.
Key player: Stuart Findlay

LIVINGSTON

Manager: Gary Holt
Last season: Fifth
Chances: The departure of Steven Lawless was a big blow, but they are used to losing players and still surprising people. Their home record will ensure they can be very competitive again and striker Lyndon Dykes will either build on his impressive debut season in the top flight or earn the club a major transfer fee.
Key player: Lyndon Dykes

MOTHERWELL

Manager: Stephen Robinson
Last season: Third
Chances: Have managed to keep the bulk of their squad intact and hold on to the impressive Stephen Robinson - so far. They also have David Turnbull back to fitness after recovering from the knee surgery that halted his £3m move to Celtic.
Key player: David Turnbull

RANGERS

Manager: Steven Gerrard
Last season: Runners-up
Chances: Steven Gerrard had plenty of time to reflect on why his team's domestic season crumpled so quickly and emphatically after the winter break, but he has focused on hitting the ground running during an impressive pre-season with a very settled first team. Much could depend on Alfredo Morelos, who has never hidden his desire to move to a bigger league and only scored once after being sent off twice in quick succession in December. If the Colombian remains motivated he could fire Rangers to success while a sale could allow Gerrard the finances to strengthen all round.
Key player: Ryan Jack

ROSS COUNTY

Manager: Stuart Kettlewell
Chances: Struggled last season after an injury to top goalscorer Ross Stewart, but the striker is back fit and will pose any team problems. Lost skipper Marcus Fraser and will be happy to stay out of trouble.
Key player: Ross Stewart

ST JOHNSTONE

Manager: Callum Davidson
Last season: Sixth
Chances: Have come through the departure of Tommy Wright, their most successful manager, in relatively stable fashion after appointing his former assistant in his place and only losing Drey Wright from their normal first team.
Key player: Callum Hendry

ST MIRREN

Manager: Jim Goodwin
Last season: Ninth
Chances: Jim Goodwin showed his managerial nous after taking over late last summer and his defence will be improved by the arrivals of Richard Tait and Joe Shaughnessy. Goals were the initial problem last season, but Jon Obika came good and his form could be crucial in determining whether the Buddies can mount a top-six challenge.
Key player: Ilkay Durmus

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