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Celtic's battle for seven in a row: A look at the Scottish Premiership challengers

Rangers, Hearts, Hibs and Dons have high hopes after shrewd signings as Bhoys aim for seventh title in row

By Julian Taylor

The Scottish Premiership season gets under way tomorrow. And for the first time in years, as Celtic unfurl the title flag at home to Hearts, perhaps there is scope for feeling a lost model of competition can resurface.

Brendan Rodgers is content following Celtic's pivotal Euro victory against Rosenborg.

This domestic campaign has particularly compelling prospects, especially with Celtic's intensity undimmed, with potential rivals arguably equipped to mount, at least, a respectable challenge.

A fleeting observer might presume Rodgers will oversee another romp to the title - which would be a seventh in a row - given an outstanding, unbeaten 2016-17 with 106 points. Now, the dynamic appears slightly different.

There are positive subtleties, such as Rangers' potentially renewed presence. Ingenious recruitment across several sides is all the more remarkable in an environment starved of meaningful financial power.

The favourites - Celtic

Treble-winning Celtic's domestic dominance borders on farcical. The Hoops enjoy superior financial comfort with another estimated £25m to come if Rodgers can manoeuvre smoothly in Europe.

Celtic, importantly, have retained key services. Moussa Dembele hit a sensational 32 goals last season and the prodigious Frenchman is displaying no signs of wanting out.

The outlook of Leigh Griffiths, Scott Sinclair and Dembele weighing in once again is, frankly, enough by itself to keep the title in Glasgow's east end.

Rodgers, therefore, has only added modestly to the ranks. Midfielder Olivier Ntcham has arrived from Manchester City's fringes with Jonny Hayes from Aberdeen. Under-performing Gary Mackay-Steven and Efe Ambrose plus veteran Emilio Izaguirre have been eased out.

The rivals - Rangers

It may be premature to suggest the clouds which engulfed Rangers last time around have cleared completely, but matters at Ibrox are appearing to gradually move forward.

They have an attractive, if still uncertain, appearance. In principle, gone is the ultra-predictable, soft-hearted rabble of Mark Warburton's mess. But what is in store under Pedro Caixinha?

The Portuguese must prove he has the gravitas and nous to press Rangers closer towards their Old Firm rivals.

Eight players have checked into Ibrox as part of the makeover. The recruitment of Portugal international enforcer Bruno Alves impressed and the envisioned central defensive partnership with compatriot Fabio Cardoso looks shrewd.

In fact, Rangers' new spine looks vigorous. A midfield pairing of Scotland international Graham Dorrans, brought in from Norwich City, and ex-Aberdeen captain Ryan Jack are unlikely to be dictated to by Celtic's Scott Brown. Up front, only time will tell whether Caixinha's decision to sign Eduardo Herrera from Mexican club Pumas, instead of Northern Ireland's Kyle Lafferty, was correct.

The managerless - Hearts

Which brings us to Hearts: a case of unfulfilled potential, freshly utilising Lafferty, of similar repute?

The Edinburgh club have just dispensed with head coach Ian Cathro following an early League Cup exit, although Lafferty himself has been on the scoresheet. The intriguing blend of the Jam Tarts and the Fermanagh firebrand carries a potential fizz of genuine excitement.

Lafferty's self-image, though, is in need of regular cajoling and Northern Ireland international coach Austin MacPhee's presence at Tynecastle is significant. It will be better still if Hearts can persuade Tommy Wright to leave St Johnstone.

The new-boys - Hibernian

Across the capital, Neil Lennon is fired up about his newly-promoted Hibernian. The Ulsterman has brought in forward Anthony Stokes for a third spell at Easter Road and, among other additions, is Vykintas Slivka, a Lithuanian international from Juventus. A Lennon-led Hibs can be a surprise package.

The runners-up - Aberdeen

Aberdeen tend to fare well early on and boss Derek McInnes is much regarded, having guided his side to the runners-up spot last season. The Dons pressed Celtic hard in the Scottish Cup final too but having lost several main men they will struggle to keep Rangers from second place this time.

The verdict

When all is said and done, the hullabaloo, as always, envelops around Glasgow. Rangers must somehow dig into a terrain badly calling for authentic competition. Celtic and Rodgers, however, are poised to stand out again.

Belfast Telegraph


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