Friday, December 09, 2016
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Celtic look to Champions League Challenge

In the end, it bore the inevitability of a Mario Balotelli red mist moment, but Celtic’s confirmation as SPL champions at the weekend was raucously celebrated by fans who hadn’t savoured a championship triumph for four long years.

 

 

Despite stuttering a little in recent weeks – defeats in the League Cup final and the Old Firm match remain fresh in the mind - Celtic were in no mood to delay the title party any longer. And they did managed it in emphatic style, with a 6-goal demolition of Kilmarnock.

 

Hoops boss Neil Lennon, having identified the SPL title as his main priority last summer, could finally indulge deliriously in a moment he had worked tirelessly for since assuming the manager’s role at the club he patently loves two years ago.

 

In anticipation of a title party, Kilmarnock had afforded the Celtic fans three of the four stands at Rugby Park. (Of course, this move was motivated more for economic reasons than any act of benevolence on their part, although, to be fair, Killie fans will understandably be heartily sick of such invasions, given Rangers swamped them in similar style to mark their own title triumph a year before).

 

Prior to the match, Killie manager Kenny Shiels had (perhaps unwisely) called for a ‘strong referee’, based on his assertion that the Parkhead club had reaped the benefit of dubious decisions during their win over St Johnstone the week before. In the event, the referee was strong enough, although the same could hardly be said for the resistance of Shiels’ own players , as they meekly capitulated under the ferocity of Celtic’s onslaught.

 

Celtic only needed a point to claim the SPL crown on Saturday, but the match was barely out of its infancy before the goals began to flow, and the home fans would have been forgiven for pleading for the towel to be thrown in long before the match was brought to a conclusion. Celtic didn’t so much go for the jugular as brutally rip the heart out of a Killie side that simply had no answer to opponents hell bent on making this an occasion to savour.

 

That the title was secured at Kilmarnock was pertinent, as this was the venue where, as recently as October last year, Celtic trailed 3-0 at half-time, with Rangers’ then 15-point lead in the SPL seemingly impregnable. Lennon has since admitted that he was seriously considering offering his resignation that afternoon, although his side’s three second-half goals secured an unlikely point.

 

And from that moment, of course, Celtic never looked back, with a remarkable unbeaten 26-game domestic run telling you all you need to know about their form.

It has been suggested in some quarters – mainly, it has to be said, by those who watch football north of the border through red, white and blue-tinted spectacles - that Celtic’s league win has somehow been tainted by virtue of Rangers’ descent into administration two months ago.

 

The ten-point deduction suffered by the Ibrox club certainly helped Celtic wrap up the league earlier than may have been anticipated, although any objective assessment of the situation would recognise that, long before Rangers’ fiscal troubles materialised, Celtic had managed to overtake their rivals, and assume the mantle of champions-in-waiting in any case.

 

Indeed, Ranger's manager Ally McCoist last week admitted himself that Celtic would be worthy champions. McCoist, after all, is long enough in the tooth to recognise when the balance of power has shifted across Glasgow, and is admirably reasonable enough to articulate the fact, despite the wretched circumstances that continue to hang heavily over his own club at the moment.

 

That old adage about the best team winning the league never rang more true here. Whether Lennon’s assertion that ‘any club can win the cup competitions’ is accurate is open to debate, (how many smaller clubs can lay claim to silverware in recent times?) but his insistence that Celtic are worthy winners of the SPL this season is beyond rational argument.

 

Meanwhile, before the dust has had time to settle on this title triumph, the feeling persists that Celtic will be determined to restore a modicum of respectability to the Scottish game with the Champions League qualifiers due to kick off in July. In that regard, Neil Lennon will appreciate more than even the most ardent fan that there remains much work to be done.

 

 

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