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At the dawn of another Scottish Premiership season, the inevitable question is asked: will it be Celtic or Rangers who emerge victorious come May?
Not since 1985, when Alex Ferguson led Aberdeen to title success, have one of the Old Firm giants failed to conquer Scotland, and with their economic might stronger than their rivals combined, it would be miraculous if that run was not to continue in season 2023/24.
Nevertheless, the title race promises to be an exciting one, with Brendan Rodgers gearing up for his second stint at Parkhead and Michael Beale’s new-look Gers eager to upset the odds in his first full season in charge.
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Celtic: A happy homecoming for Rodgers?
There is no question that the balance of power in Scottish football currently lies with Celtic, whose treble last season was their fifth in seven seasons. But could their dominance be wavering?
The decision to appoint Brendan Rodgers as manager is certainly not one that has been greeted with universal praise. Indeed, during Tuesday’s friendly against Athletic Club, ultra groups the Green Brigade and Bhoys Celtic, known for their vibrant support for the team, were conspicuous by their absence. No reason has been made public, but given they protested against Rodgers’ appointment, the message appears clear.
The Northern Irishman, who many fans feel walked out on the club unjustly to move to Leicester in 2019, is unlikely to have the understanding or the patience of a vocal section of the fanbase.
And the pressure is on. After Ange Postecoglou’s side swept so stylishly to three trophies last season, scoring 114 goals in the league in the process, more of the same is not only expected, but demanded.
A busy summer for Celtic
Rodgers’ side have reaped the benefits of winger Jota leaving to Al-Ittihad for a princely fee. Although the Portugal international’s impact will be missed – particularly in Old Firm matches, which was an atmosphere he thrived in – his sale has comfortably funded the arrival of six players to further strengthen an already formidable squad.
The Hoops’ summer signings are unknown quantities. Five of the six arrivals are aged between 20 and 22, with Tomoki Iwata, a four-time Japan international, the exception. These players are coming from leagues as diverse as Norway, Poland, Australia, Japan and even South Korea’s second tier. How they settle remains to be seen.
Maik Nawrocki is the major signing and should partner Cameron Carter-Vickers in the heart of defence, with the US star set to be vital once more.
They remain strong in midfield, where they have strong array of options highlighted by captain Callum McGregor, while in attack they leaned on the goals of Kyogo Furuhashi last season. Beyond the Japanese, they had numerous players chipping with regular goals, with 10 players managing four or more goals for the campaign.
Kyogo’s scoring power means that many making their predictions for the season ahead have him as a likely top scorer at odds of 4.30.
Rodgers already has the tools at his disposal, it is simply a case for him of building on Postecoglou’s momentum to get the fans onside early. If he achieves that, they have every chance of another successful season.
Rangers: Attacking uncertainty casts doubt on Gers’ title bid
Gers manager Michael Beale recognised the need that his side had for change this season and has spent the summer trying to implement it.
Stars like Alfredo Morelos and Ryan Kent, who had gone stale at Ibrox, have been allowed to leave. Seven regulars in the matchday squad have departed, including loan star Malik Tillman, with eight players arriving. In total, they have lost 38 goals from their forward line, with second-top league marksman Antonio Colak also departing.
Rangers have spent similar money to their city rivals, with three centre-forwards arriving for fees. The most notable of these is Brazilian centre-froward Danilo, who has signed on from Feyenoord, where he scored 14 goals in all competitions last season.
While the South American tasted success, Rangers’ other attacking arrivals, Cyriel Dessers, Sam Lammers, and Abdallah Sima, were all relegated wiith their respective clubs and struggled to find the net. Beale is counting on at least a couple of these signings coming good.
Preseason, though, suggests that the manager remains unsure how best to utilise his attacking options. Beale’s men have been confused at times going forward, playing almost a 4-2-4. This might work against lesser opponents, but it’s clear they need to become more efficient – something that will surely come with time.
Indeed, during the summer, Rangers have benefited from James Tavernier’s penalty excellence, something that made the right-back their top scorer with 16 league goals last season. He’s available at odds of 34.00 to finish as top scorer in the Scottish Premiership – a brave Scottish Premiership prediction but not one unthinkable if something were to happen to Kyogo at Celtic.
Beale, meanwhile, may also have to adopt a more pragmatic approach against tougher opponents, notably in Old Firm games and in Europe so his side’s weaknesses are not exploited.
So what of Rangers’ defence? Given they conceded only three goals more than Celtic last season, there’s been no overhaul. Leon Balogun has returned from QPR while they have arguably upgraded in goal, where the aging Allan McGregor has made way for Jack Butland.
Their season, though, will likely be dictated by how effectively Beale can get his attack to work.
Who will win the Scottish Premiership: Our verdict
Celtic rightly start the season as favourites and are the best bet to win the league at 1.62. This is hardly the boldest of Scottish Premiership predictions given their dominance in recent years, but Rodgers has a flying start thanks to the strength and depth of the squad that he has to work with.
There are simply too many unknowns about how Rangers’ array of new additions will settle or even how they will be used to back the Ibrox club, whose odds of 2.25 don’t look particularly generous.
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