Celtic overwhelming favourites for new-look league
Agence France-Presse in Glasgow
Top flight football in Scotland may have a new name but when it comes to who will come out on top at the end of the season then it is the same old story.
Glasgow giants Celtic, in the continued absence of Rangers from the country’s top tier, will start the season as overwhelming favourites to capture the inaugural Scottish Premiership crown after cantering to the title last year.
Despite being weakened by the loss of last season’s top scorer Gary Hooper and influential midfielder Victor Wanyama, the Hoops still have more than enough quality to turn the title race into a procession.
Nearly 18 million pounds has been raised from their departures and after raking in 20.4 million pounds from their run to the last 16 in the Champions League it is clear there are no sides with the finances or resources able to compete with Celtic domestically over a season.
Neil Lennon’s side, who beat Elfsborg 1-0 in the Champions League third qualifying round first leg on Wednesday, open their league campaign against Ross County on Saturday as they bid to make it three-in-a-row but their real test will once again come in Europe and it is where the manager and his players will be judged.
The real battle will be who can win the race to be best of the rest behind the Hoops. Motherwell, who were runners-up last season, remain among the best placed to repeat the feat.
The Fir Park side, who are away to Hibernian on Sunday, lost some key players in the summer, including Nicky Law and player-of-the-year Michael Higdon.
But perhaps their biggest coup was holding on to highly rated manager Stuart McCall despite the overtures of former club Sheffield United in the summer.
Dundee United, in their first full season under the stewardship of Jackie McNamara, are expected to do well with former striker David Goodwillie back at the club on loan from Blackburn Rovers.
Once again good things are expected of Aberdeen under new manager Derek McInnes. The Pittodrie side have recruited well but the perennial underachievers have struggled to reach the top six in recent years.
At the other end, newly promoted Partick Thistle, with their limited finances and resources, should find life tough in the top flight.
Hibernian, too, may struggle with manager Pat Fenlon under pressure following a humiliating record 7-0 home defeat to Malmo in their recent Europa League qualifier still fresh in the mind.
However, the Easter Road side may be saved from relegation by city rivals Hearts.
The Jambos will start this campaign with a 15-point deficit after they entered administration during the close season.
The task of overhauling that deficit is monumental and many consider them bigger certainties to go down than Celtic are to win the league.
It is not a situation lost on manager Gary Locke.
With the club facing possible liquidation he has been left with a squad of only 17 outfield players and is unable to bring in new recruits due to a transfer embargo.
“The fact is we know exactly what is needed. We need to win as many games as possible,” the Hearts manager said.
“There will be no meaningless games for us this season. Every one will be like a cup final.
“I am relying on a lot of young players to find a pretty high level of performance week in, week out and that is a very big ask.
“But I think we have some talented guys in the dressing room and we have a lot of spirit. We are all in this together and, while it will be hugely difficult, I am quietly optimistic.”
Locke’s side face high-flying St Johnstone in their season opener on Sunday.
The Perth side, under new manager Tommy Wright, claimed one of their best ever results when they knocked Norwegian side Rosenborg out of the Europa League qualifiers last month.
“We always knew that it was going to be a tough match but, now that they have beaten Rosenborg, people are starting to sit up and realise that our task is going to be more difficult than they perhaps thought,” Locke added.