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Rangers no longer offer a challenge as Celtic’s Old Firm dominance continued at the weekend

Martyn Cooke

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There was once a time when playing in an Old Firm derby at Ibrox whilst wearing the green and white hoops of Celtic was a daunting prospect.

However, after Saturday’s contest we can safely assume that this is no longer the case.

The first Old Firm derby of the new campaign confirmed two things; first, that Rangers have failed to make up any ground over their neighbours despite an active summer in the transfer market and, second, that Celtic’s dominance over Scottish football shows absolutely no signs of being halted any time soon. It also demonstrated that Brandan Rodgers’ side no longer have any real reason to fear or be concerned with the prospect of a short trip across Glasgow to Ibrox.

In reality Celtic brushed aside Rangers with relative ease on Saturday, much in the same way that they have despatched each and every team that they have met in domestic competitions over the previous fourteen months. The Hoops are now unbeaten in 57 domestic games and the green and white juggernaut will take some stopping – if it can be stopped at all.

The atmosphere at Ibrox was hostile, as it will always be when the neighbours come to town, but there was an obvious gulf in quality and class between the two teams on display. Celtic applied themselves with a confidence and assertiveness that their unbeaten record deserves and they played as if it was a home match. The Hoops rarely looked stressed or stretched and Rangers’ impotence is demonstrated by the statistics – they managed just one shot on target and one corner throughout the ninety minutes.

Pedro Caixinha’s side were resilient and worked tirelessly but simply lacked the quality to truly trouble the visitors. Rangers actually spent more money than their rivals during the summer but there is nothing to suggest that this has facilitated any substantial improvement or progress when compared to the previous season. They are some way from closing the gulf in class.

This fact was definitively highlighted by the standard of player that Brendan Rodgers named among the substitutes for Saturday. Callum McGregor, James Forrest, Moussa Dembele and Jonny Hayes all occupied the Celtic bench at Ibrox and an argument could be made that all four are superior to any player in the current Rangers squad. In contrast, injuries had exposed the hosts lack of strength in depth and 19-year-old central defender Ross McCrorie was thrown in very much at the deep end for his first competitive start.

Celtic have already opened up a clear five point lead at the top of the Scottish Premier League and their dominance is decisive. Meanwhile Rangers already trail their neighbours by eight points and you sense that the pressure is already starting to build around Caixinha.

There was once a time when Ibrox was a place to fear for Celtic, yet those days appear to be long gone and, armed with the annual financial windfall that participation in the Champions League brings, you sense that The Hoops will hold power and sway over Rangers and Scottish football for a long time to come.

Martyn is currently a PTA and Research Assistant in the Department of Exercise Science at the Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). In addition to his teaching role he is also undertaking a PhD in Sports History that is exploring the origins and development of football in Staffordshire. Prior to working at MMU, Martyn spent a decade operating in the sport and leisure industry in a variety of roles including as a Sports Development Officers, PE Teacher, Football Coach and Operation Manager.

Brighton and Hove Albion

Will Celtic’s Moussa Dembele look to progress with a Premier League move?

Jake Jackman

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Dembele

The transfer window is fast approaching and Brighton look set to make an early breakthrough with the signing of Celtic striker Moussa Dembele. According to Sky Sports’ Kaveh Solhekol, the two clubs have agreed a fee of £18 million for the French striker. The Seagulls had been heavily linked to the player, but it will come as a surprise if a deal has been reached with the Bhoys. The Scottish Premier League club know that the 21-year-old is an asset that continues to increase in value and it could be that this story has been leaked to flush out more interest.

However, the transfer window is rarely clear cut and there are parties operating with different objectives. Every story needs to be treated with caution and The Sun have posted a contradictory report, with Celtic sources branding Sky’s story as ‘nonsense’. This is certainly a story to keep an eye on. The report from Sky may be premature, but they are a reliable source and it does seem like there is some substance to the transfer story.

Brighton fans will understandably be excited about the potential of Dembele, as they are in dire need of more attacking options. Glenn Murray has been their main striker for the first half of the season. Although he is doing well, there are doubts about his ability to be a starting Premier League striker for the long-term. The Seagulls are likely to be in a relegation battle and they need a more reliable source of goals to ensure they do remain out of the bottom three.

During their last seven Premier League matches, Brighton have scored only two goals. An organised defence has allowed them to continue picking up points, but they can’t expect to stay clear of danger unless they score more often. They have some excellent midfield players that are capable of creating chances, such as Davy Propper, Anthony Knockaert and Pascal Gross. If they can bring in a quality striker to help out Murray and chip in with a few goals, they will be in a great position to do well during the second half of the season.

His career to date

The Frenchman first came to England when he joined Fulham as a teenager from Paris Saint Germain.

He initially made headlines for his name, rather than his reputation on the pitch, with the Cottagers losing Mousa Dembele to Tottenham at the same time his younger namesake (a slight spelling difference aside) arrived at Craven Cottage. It was a great piece of scouting from the club and academy director Huw Jennings told BBC Sport why the striker had emerged on their radar:

“When Moussa was 16 there was no doubt he possessed all the raw ingredients you look for in a striker. He’s got pace and power, he can finish, use both feet and he is good in the air. He has got good intelligence.”

“What stood out for me was not only what you could see on the pitch but I felt a calmness and assuredness off the pitch. It is not easy coming across from a foreign country at a young age and the thing Moussa has had to demonstrate more than any others is resilience.”

It didn’t take long for Dembele to feature in the first-team, as he made his Premier League debut in November 2013 and featured on one more occasion during the relegation season. The drop to the Championship was a massive blow for the club, but it provided a chance for the young players to make a mark at senior level. The Frenchman grabbed that with both hands and was one of the best young players during the 2015-16 campaign.

He started 37 Championship matches and made a further six appearances from the bench as he began to develop a reputation as one of the best young players in the Football League. Dembele contributed an impressive 15 goals and six assists, with a goal involvement rate of one every 160 minutes. Unluckily for Fulham, he was in the final year of his contract and he opted to move on at the end of the season on a free transfer.

According to BBC Sport, he came close to joining Tottenham during the January transfer window, with a deal being agreed for £5 million. That deal didn’t come to fruition. but it underlines how highly-rated the Frenchman is in the game. He remained with Fulham for the rest of the season before joining Celtic in the summer. It was a decision that raised eyebrows, but he quickly became the best player in the division and the leader of the attack.

A lot of young players have been criticised for making the jump to a big club too soon, but Dembele’s career has been well mapped out and that shows his impressive temperament. Few 16-year-olds would choose to leave PSG to join Fulham, but the striker is determined to make it to the top and he isn’t afraid for it to be a slow journey.

Since joining Celtic, he has continued to develop and his role in their unbeaten domestic season cannot be underplayed, as he registered 27 goals across all domestic competitions. The Scottish league is not as good as it once was, in terms of quality, but it is still a huge responsibility to play for Celtic and Dembele has thrived under that. Brendan Rodgers has been a huge influence on his star striker’s career and believes that he can go to the very top:

“Moussa showed last year that when he’s fit he’s got that capability to play at that level and that’s all you want.

“Now it’s the case of over the next few years consistently showing that he can do that.”

Celtic and Rodgers will be realistic when it comes to their chances of keeping hold of the 21-year-old. The latest links to Brighton may come as a surprise, as it was expected that a bigger club would come in for him. However, his career path to date shows that he is keen to earn his way to the top and prioritises first-team football over club prestige.

In the modern game, a move from Celtic to a bottom-half Premier League club is a step upwards. It is important that Dembele proves himself in one of the top five European leagues and a transfer to the Seagulls would be a logical move for him.

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Celtic

Brendan Rodgers: Celtic’s unbeaten run may never be surpassed

Martyn Cooke

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Celtic
Photo: Reuters

Celtic’s 69-game unbeaten domestic run came to an abrupt halt on Sunday afternoon after they were out-played, out-fought and out-thought by Hearts, but Brendan Rodgers believes that his team have set a record that may never be surpassed.

And, he may well be right.

The reigning Scottish champions were emphatically beaten 4-0 in Edinburgh, something that their Northern Irish manager admitted following the contest, but the defeat was immediately followed by a glowing reflection on the previous 584 days. Rodgers told BBC Sport that his players had “set a record that may well never be beaten” – and it is hard to disagree.

The statistics that back up Celtic’s unbeaten run are astonishing.

The Hoops’ last loss prior to Sunday was in May 2016, a run of 69-games and 584 days without tasting defeat against Scottish opposition that transferred into four domestic trophies and an entire season unbeaten. Celtic won 60 of those contests, scoring 197 goals and conceding just 40, on their way to breaking a 100-year British record that had never before been challenged.

There are those that attempt to dismiss the achievement, tending to either point to the financial disparity between the Scottish champions and the remainder of the league or declare Scottish football as being little more than a ‘pub league’. However, that does little to explain why no one else in the past century has accomplished such a feat.

The reality is that Celtic supporters have been privy to witnessing Rodgers construct the most dominant Scottish team that the domestic game has ever seen and the club, manager and players should receive the praise that they deserve.

It is difficult to imagine any other Scottish team replicating or bettering Celtic’s achievements any time soon, especially considering the financial composition of football north of the boarder, and the feat signifies that Rodgers’ managerial reputation has been rebuilt.

He arrived at Celtic Park just over eighteen months ago battered and bruised from a turbulent final few months in charge of Anfield, despite the fact, barring an unfortunate Steven Gerrard slip, he would have guided the club to the title.

However, Celtic’s unbeaten run has rekindled his reputation and attention will now turn towards what the 44-year-old’s long term plans are.

Rodgers has already accomplished almost everything possible at Celtic. He secured the treble in his first season, something that he looks set to repeat this campaign, and in reality there is minimal opposition on the domestic front to challenge the Hoops’ dominance.

Furthermore, it is difficult to see the club making much of an inroad in European competitions, as demonstrated by the recent Champions League group stage, leaving the question: what more can Rodgers achieve at Celtic Park?

Maybe that is a question for the future. For now, Rodgers is focused on securing further silverware declaring that “We hit the reset button and look to get three points in our next game. Now that the run is finished, we want to get back to winning ways as quickly as possible.”

Maybe the upcoming fixture against Partick Thistle will be the start of another unbeaten run…

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Celtic

Three things learnt from Celtic’s second-leg 4-3 defeat against FC Astana

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Celtic

Having thrashed FC Astana 5-0 during the first leg of their final Champions League play-off, Celtic could have been forgiven for looking forward to an easy night as they travelled to Kazakhstan for the return encounter.

Instead, the Hoops endured a harrowing night in hot and humid conditions, falling 4-1 behind with more than 20 minutes to go as Astana punished a series of individual errors. Fortunately, Brendan Rodgers’ men recovered to score two further goals and seal their place in the Champions League proper for the second consecutive season.

So what did we learn from Celtic’s trip to Kazakhstan? Here are three key talking points:

Celtic still lack Champions League pedigree

Celtic have not lost in 52 domestic games, a run that included an unbeaten season and a clean sweep of trophies during Rodgers’ first year in charge.

Conversely, they did not win any of their six Champions League group matches last season, creating a stark contrast with their domestic form and highlighting the lack of pedigree afflicting Celtic on the European stage.

While they may have beaten FC Astana over two legs and scored eight goals in the process, their performance in Kazakhstan proved they require much improvement if they are to be competitive in the Champions League. They certainly need to be more focused and compact in defence, while showcasing greater composure on the ball when they are away from home.

Rodgers may need to strengthen his defence

In truth, the sight of midfielder Nir Bitton lining up in defence for Celtic should have been a cause for concern, even allowing for Celtic’s healthy lead heading into the second leg.

Bitton, who was caught out positionally on numerous occasions and allowed Patrick Twumasi past him far too easily for Astana’s fourth goal of the night, was filling in for injured duo Dedryck Boyata and Erik Sviatchenko (the latter has also been linked with a move to FC Copenhagen in The Times). With Jozo Simunovic also absent, the Hoops looked short of experience at the back and were run ragged in the second half.

This is an area where Rodgers may well look to strengthen before the end of the summer transfer window, particularly of Sviatchenko is allowed to move on. A player with Champions League experience would also be a huge boon, especially as the club look to progress and compete more aggressively in Europe.

Olivier Ntcham is the real deal for Celtic

When French starlet Olivier Ntcham joined Celtic from Manchester City for around £4.5 million during the summer, those in the know suggested that the Hoops had signed a top international talent. Ntcham certainly impressed during the first leg against Astana, while the powerful midfielder made a telling contribution in Kazakhstan and was arguably Celtic’s classiest performer on a challenging night.

The youngster showed tremendous drive and composure as he strode forward from deep against a tiring Astana side, before firing home a nerve-settling second goal for Celtic with 10 minutes to go.

He certainly delivered when it mattered the most, which is a trait shared by all high quality players. Ntcham undoubtedly looks like the real deal for the Hoops, and along with Kieran Tierney he offers genuine hope that Celtic can acquit themselves well and make a positive impression in the Champions League this season.

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