ONE thing I can rely on in this life is my canny ability to do the weekly shop at Asda in under 20 minutes. In the right conditions, with no queue at the tills and an experienced checkout assistant, I can be out in 15. I bound down the aisles flicking regular items into the trolley with such gusto, I can almost feel the presence of the late, great Dale Winton when I arrive, panting, at the little goods treadmill I populate like a game of Tetris.

What I hadn’t accounted for on last week’s outing, when I gave myself a generous hour including the round trip ahead of a journey to the airport to catch a flight, was change. On passing through that strange blast of warm air as the automatic doors slid apart to let me in, I was immediately confronted with the bakery having been moved from the right flank of the supermarket to where the beer and wine used to be. The cereal had moved to an aisle I usually skipped past. The fresh poultry had switched sides with the red meat – imagine! – and even the milk had been shifted into a central berth within the chilled section. I arrived at the checkout with many questions for the poor assistant who received me. What was all the change about? At what cost? I implored. The latest “beep” as my pickled onions passed over the scanner was the only reply…

When Celtic clinched the Premiership title with four games to spare at Tynecastle this month, Ange Postecoglou’s side hadn’t lost a match since a 5-1 humbling against European champions Real Madrid way back at the beginning of November. Since ensuring the league trophy remains in the crowded Parkhead trophy room, that same side haven’t won in their last three outings.

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But that’s just it: it wasn’t really the same side which played in the 3-0 defeat to Rangers at Ibrox, 2-2 draw at home to St Mirren or Wednesday night’s 4-2 defeat away to Hibernian. Rather than transforming from an all-conquering to distinctly average side overnight, the changes Postecoglou has made to his line-up help to explain the drop-off. Have Celtic offered their rivals a rare chink in their armour that Beale & Co can target next season? Or, conversely, are they demonstrating the dangers of falling into the bear trap of change for change’s sake Rangers appear to be hurtling towards like a trolly with a wonky wheel themselves?

The Herald: Scott Bain looks dejected after conceding at Easter RoadScott Bain looks dejected after conceding at Easter Road (Image: PA)

One of the hallmarks of Celtic’s unwavering consistency this season has been the formidable central-defensive partnership of Cameron Carter-Vickers and Carl Starfelt shielding veteran goalkeeper Joe Hart. Carter-Vickers’ absence after having knee surgery in the immediate aftermath of clinching the title has seen Yuki Kobayashi installed into the triumvirate. While the 22-year-old Japanese stopper shows plenty of promise, it is no coincidence that Celtic have shipped nine goals in the three games since (for context, that’s over a quarter of their goals conceded for the entire season).

Add into that defensive frailty the loss of right-back Alistair Johnston, who limped off with an ankle injury after Celtic’s Scottish Cup semi-final win over Rangers last month, and left-back Greg Taylor, and the replacement figures of Anthony Ralston and Alexandro Bernabei. Ralston has proved himself another able deputy since the Greek-Australian took over, and again Bernabei has shown glimpses of promise since signing on a five-year deal from Argentinian outfit Lanus for £3.75m last summer. On Wednesday night at Easter Road, however, with Scott Bain given the gloves ahead of veteran Joe Hart, that unfamiliar back four in front of a ring-rusty goalkeeper left Celtic vulnerable to an attacking Hibs side still with plenty to play for.

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Rangers have this week formally announced the impending departures of five first-team players, with more to follow. Veteran goalkeeper Allan McGregor, who at 41 was always expected to pack his bags come the end of the season, leads the exodus, but has yet to be replaced. Robby McCrorie has done his chances of succeeding the club legend between the sticks, his assured display in the 3-0 derby victory over Celtic at Ibrox this month offering a solid audition for the role. But at 25, and with limited top-level experience behind him, he still represents something of a project player at a time when Rangers are trying to loosen Celtic’s iron grip on the domestic game.

In midfield for Celtic on Wednesday night, Postecoglou started with Tomoki Iwata, another Japanese player who has shown promise since his arrival, but the absence of a fully fit Aaron Mooy – one of the standout players in the division this term – and Matt O’Riley dropping to the bench meant another inexperienced player was occupying a central role. Over at Ibrox, meanwhile, Rangers announced that they will release veteran midfielder Scott Arfield, whose experience will be missed.

In the forward positions, it was all change at Easter Road for Celtic. Sead Haksabanovic, another player who has demonstrated he has bags of ability but requires more game time to get up to the levels set by the likes of Jota and Daizen Maeda this season, and Liel Abada occupied the wide berths, while Oh Hyeon-gyu led the line in place of talisman Kyogo Furuhashi. Again, whenever these players have come into the team throughout the season, there has been little sign of a drop-off; however, as a wholesale shift, Celtic were weakened and vulnerable and ultimately paid the price with a heavy defeat. The most significant departures from Ibrox this summer will be striker Alfredo Morelos, who has scored 124 goals in 269 appearances, and winger Ryan Kent, signed from Liverpool for around £7m back in 2019. The club missed the boat on moving those two on when their stock was high, although their departures will free up significant funds in the wage bill.

Rangers may well finish the league campaign feeling optimistic about next season, with January signings Todd Cantwell and Nico Raskin having impressed and after an overdue derby triumph giving the standings a healthier sheen. But what the Scottish champions have shown since wrapping up the title a few weeks ago is that change is not always beneficial. Celtic will undoubtedly come back stronger with the return of Carter-Vickers, Johnston, Taylor, Mooy, Jota and Furuhashi as well as any reinforcements made in the summer. For Rangers and Beale, they’ll need to hope the new faces promised around Ibrox hit the ground running. Any hint of a bedding-in period will be trampled over by their barnstorming rivals across the city.