WHEN Dave King compared Celtic’s dominance of Scottish football to a pack of cards last year and predicted it would come tumbling down with just a single Rangers title triumph he was widely and gleefully derided by fans of opposition clubs.

But after a season of change at both Ibrox and Parkhead will King be proved right in the coming 10 months? Are the Govan club suddenly holding all of the aces? Are their East End rivals now a busted flush?

The forthcoming Ladbrokes Premiership campaign, which gets underway on Saturday, promises to be the closest and most fiercely-contested in a decade. Neil Lennon, the newly-installed Celtic manager, and Steven Gerrard, his Rangers counterpart, will do well not to fold under the intense pressure.

Rangers, despite not lifting any major silverware for the eighth season running, made definite progress under the Liverpool and England great last season. They finished runners-up for the first time since returning to the top flight three years earlier. Crucially, they won two Glasgow derby matches and, what is more, did so comfortably.


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Having strengthened further in the close season with the arrival of another seven permanent signings and one loanee - Joe Aribo, Steven Davis, George Edmundson, Jake Hastie, Filip Helander, Jordan Jones, Sheyi Ojo and Greg Stewart - there is justifiable optimism among their followers that they can launch a credible challenge in the league in the 2019/20 campaign.

But for the Ibrox club to win the Premiership they need the defending champions to slip up and fail to show the extraordinary level of consistency that they have in the last eight years, the last three in particular, as well.

Many observers, particularly those who view the world through light blue tinted spectacles, envisage that happening. After all, Brendan Rodgers, the man who oversaw unprecedented consecutive trebles and laid the foundations for a third during his two-and-three-quarter years in Glasgow, has departed for Leicester City.

So, too, have Dedryck Boyata, their centre half, and Mikael Lustig, their vastly-experienced right back and vice-captain. Kieran Tierney, who has been the subject of two failed bids in recent weeks, could well be sold before the transfer window closes.

Much will depend on how Lennon and his close season acquisitions, and to date he has brought in Boli Bolingoli, Luca Connell, Hatem Abd Elhamed and Christopher Julien, fare.


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Will the Northern Irishman be able to replicate the domestic success of his first stint in charge? He won three consecutive titles during his four years at the helm. But those successes came after the financial implosion of their traditional rivals.

This season will be the first in which he has had to overcome a Rangers team that hasn’t been encumbered by serious off-field problems. His team will have to be at their very best to complete a record-equalling ninth successive league win. He needs Bolingoli, Elhamed, Jullien and whoever else arrives to justify the outlay on their services and cope with the considerable demands on them to perform in order to prevail.

He has a wealth of talent at his disposal in Kristoffer Ajer, Scott Bain, Nir Bitton, Scott Brown, Ryan Christie, Odsonne Edouard, James Forrest, Callum McGregor, Tom Rogic, Jozo Simunovic, Scott Sinclair and Tierney if he stays. Having Leigh Griffiths, who has returned after a seven month sabbatical to deal with personal issues, fit and available for selection again is a massive boost.

Could Daniel Arzani, Vakoun Issouf Bayo, Connell, Ewan Henderson, Mikey Johnston, Eboue Kouassi, Lewis Morgan or Marian Shved come to the fore? One or two of them are bound to. Lennon, then, isn’t exactly short of options.

But will the amount of football his key men have played at home and abroad for club and country in the last few seasons prove costly? McGregor, it was revealed this week, played more competitive football than any other player in the world game last term. He was on the park for 5,894 minutes in total. That sort of punishing schedule will take an inevitable toll at some stage. Could they become victims of their success?


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Celtic continue, after years of sensible stewardship, involvement in both the Europa League and Champions League group stages and successes in the transfer market, to enjoy rude financial health. If Tierney does move on, and Lennon can envisage uncertainty over the left back rumbling on until the end of August, they will bank a further £25 million.

They operate in a completely different stratosphere to Rangers when it comes to buying players – they spent more bringing in £7 million Toulouse centre half Jullien than their main challengers have on all eight of their acquisitions – and had a larger and superior squad as it was.

The appointment of Lennon following the William Hill Scottish Cup final in May wasn’t universally welcomed by Celtic fans. A large number of them wanted to see another high-profile coach from down south brought in to replace Rodgers permanently. Their opposite numbers across the city, meanwhile, greeted the development rapturously.

But it is hard to see why. The 48-year-old knows exactly what is required of him having done the job before, has improved as a manager as a result of his stints in the dugout at both Bolton Wanderers and Hibernian and is a far less combustible character than he was in his younger days.

I believe the higher standard of players that Lennon has in his team will see Celtic complete Nine-In-A-Row this season. But Gerrard and Rangers will push them every inch of the way. Could it go down to the wire? Don’t bet against it.


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The improvement shown by Rangers make it unlikely that Aberdeen, Kilmarnock, Hearts, Hibernian or any other Premiership side will be able to vie for second spot never mind the title.

There were high hopes for Angelo Alessio, the former Juventus, Italy and Chelsea assistant, when he replaced Steve Clarke at Rugby Park. But the humiliating Europa League exit to Welsh semi-professional outfit Connah’s Quay Nomads does not augur well for his reign. Finishing third again looks improbable.

The arrival of Craig Bryson, Curtis Main and Ash Taylor at Pittodrie could atone for the loss of Graeme Shinnie and Gary Mackay-Steven by Aberdeen in the close season. Derek McInnes has proved adept at rebuilding his team during his remarkable six year reign. They should once again be the best of the rest.

But Hibs, who did superbly when Paul Heckingbottom replaced Lennon last season, and Hearts, who Craig Levein led to the Scottish Cup final, will have ambitions to finish high enough to secure returns to European football. The return of Scott Allan to Easter Road and the imminent signing of Steven Naismith at Tynecastle will make both clubs formidable opponents.

At the other end of the table, Hamilton Academical, Livingston, Motherwell, Ross County and St Mirren, who have replaced Owen Kearney with club stalwart Jim Goodwin, will be doing well to avoid relegation to the Championship.

The battle to beat the drop provided great drama last season, not least in the play-off final when St Mirren defeat Dundee United on penalties after they had finished level after extra-time in the second leg, but it is the race for the title this season which should, after years of one-sided processions, supply the greatest excitement.