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Celtic title stroll is 'no reflection on Scottish game'

By Graham Luney

Celtic may be cruising to a Premiership title after winning 26 of their 27 top-flight games but Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill has hit out at criticism of the standard of Scottish football.

O'Neill, who lives in Edinburgh, enjoys watching matches in Scotland and he's been hugely impressed with the job his fellow Ulsterman, Brendan Rodgers, is performing at Celtic.

The Carnlough man's unbeaten side are 27 points clear of second-placed Aberdeen and require seven points to win the title.

Rangers, a further six points adrift of the Dons, visit Parkhead on Sunday (12pm) and the club is searching for a new boss after Mark Warburton's exit.

With Celtic three games away from a sixth consecutive league title, some critics have questioned the entertainment value of Scotland's top flight, including Talksport presenter Jason Cundy who labelled the game "embarrasing", questioned the size of the Hoops' support and said the club would struggle to beat Stoke City.

Rodgers hit back at the comments, saying: "It's ignorance really - the footballing world is more than the (English) Premier League."

And Northern Ireland boss O'Neill has waded into the debate, saying it's unfair and unreasonable to take a cheap shot at the Scottish game.

"I wouldn't say that Scottish football is as bad as some critics would suggest," said O'Neill who is gearing up for this month's vital World Cup qualifier at home to Norway.

"Celtic have been very good this season and are way ahead of the rest. The reality is that with the finances in Scottish football for most Scottish clubs, bar home grown players, they will be signing from League One or League Two level.

"Scottish football will always lose players to the Championship in England and the Premier League but the product to watch is decent.

"I enjoy watching Scottish football. I watch a lot of football in England too and when I'm watching Championship or League One I don't come away thinking the standard is far higher than it is in Scotland."

In his defence of Scottish football, former Liverpool boss Rodgers added: "It (Scottish Premiership) is not as prestigious as some of the other leagues and that's purely on the basis of finance.

"Financially, Scottish football doesn't have the same rewards or the same propaganda that surrounds some of the other leagues, but it's still a very, very competitive league."

O'Neill echoed those sentiments and argued that clubs north of the border could offer more opportunities to young talent hoping to make a breakthrough.

"With Scottish clubs they can't compete financially with Championship sides in England and certainly not Premier League clubs to import the top class foreign stars but then again that should provide a greater opportunity for young home based players," he added.

"There should be more young Scottish talent playing in the Premier League and in turn that would be better for the national team.

"What Brendan has done this season is build a real dominance with Celtic but maybe next season it will be difficult to repeat that and the gap may close."

Rodgers has also suggested that Irish and Scottish players don't always have the same mentality as foreign players and O'Neill can understand that argument.

"I haven't worked with foreign players and Brendan will be closer to that than me but I do think the foreign players who come into the British game do so with a different approach in terms of lifestyle though that may be a cultural thing as much as a football thing," he added.

"Younger players need to fully understand the lifestyle required to be a top player."

O'Neill, who will name his squad for the Norway clash on March 26 tomorrow, is also impressed with fellow Ulsterman Neil Lennon's impact in the Hibernian hotseat

"I'm delighted for Lenny and Hibs," said the former Dundee United and Hibs player. "If they can win the game on Friday (at Dundee United) it will be massive for them.

"They'll really be in a strong position for promotion. The Cup run is a good thing for Hibs because it keeps the season alive. I know what Neil is like and I'll be very surprised if he doesn't push them on and get them promoted."

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