Celtic handle different pressure of SPL title race without Rangers

 

Celtic found themselves between a rock and a hard place this season.

Coast to the league title in Rangers' absence and critics would say they haven't been challenged; drop points against the other sides and accusations of falling standards would follow.

Not that it has stopped Celtic from adding more silverware.

Neil Lennon's second successive league championship followed progression to the last 16 of the Champions League and a famous victory over Barcelona.

SPL standings 2011/12

Played Won Points

Celtic

38

30

93

Rangers

38

26

73

Motherwell

38

18

62

Dundee Utd

38

16

59

Hearts

38

15

52

A further trophy is up for grabs in the Scottish Cup final against Hibernian at the end of May.

Celtic's long-standing Old Firm rivals Rangers, of course, played in Division Three this season.

"There's an argument that, because Rangers aren't there, it's a lot easier," former Celtic and Republic of Ireland goalkeeper Pat Bonner told BBC Scotland.

"That's a valid argument in one way, because competition makes it all the more interesting for the fans and the media.

"But there's a different pressure on Celtic this year because all the attention has been on them.

"Nobody can take away what Celtic achieved this year as far as the Champions League is concerned and they had to mix the league in among that.

"When you add that pressure into it and the motivation, to keep the players going, week in week out, then I think it's been a great achievement."

Bonner, with more than 600 appearances for Celtic and 80 caps for his country, believes that shorn of their Old Firm rivals, Celtic have endured stress of a different nature this season.

"I laugh at times when I hear people saying 'Celtic aren't that good' but they've achieved," he said.

Pat Bonner

Former Celtic keeper Pat Bonner

Nobody can take away what Celtic achieved this year. I'd give them an 8 out of 10 this season.

"Next season will be a huge challenge because they've got three qualifying rounds for the Champions League.

"With Rangers in the Third Division, that stress of not looking over your shoulder isn't there but there are other stresses involved and I think the manager has done well."

With Rangers gone and a transfer budget that dwarves their current SPL rivals, attacking midfielder Kris Commons added some much-needed flair to a Celtic side which has lost six league games, one more than last term.

The 29-year-old former Stoke, Nottingham Forest and Derby forward has proved a valuable attacking force with 10 goals and nine assists in the league.

And Celtic have been at their most potent this term when Commons, Gary Hooper and Anthony Stokes have all been on song.

"I've always liked Kris. He's an inventive player," said Bonner. "When he gets the ball he can score a goal, strike from anywhere and he can also slot someone else in.

"I like those types of players and I don't think Celtic have enough of them.

"In the past, we were always lifted from our seats by the greats who could do things. Celtic don't have enough of those types of players."

Before the January transfer window - and failed bids by Norwich City - Hooper looked like continuing his impressive scoring rate since his move from Scunthorpe.

Last season's top goalscorer (24) has scored 16 league goals this term, but has been overtaken in the SPL scoring charts by Motherwell's Michael Higdon (24), Hibernian's Leigh Griffiths, Inverness Caledonian Thistle's Billy McKay (20) and Aberdeen's Niall McGinn (18).

Hooper has been starved of striking partner Stokes through injury for a sizeable chunk of the season and the service provided has varied.

Speculation over his future appears to have affected the forward's game and, given his high standards, he will be disappointed with his contribution since then.

Celtic have looked defensively fragile at times, with Efe Ambrose and Kelvin Wilson looking unconvincing as a central defensive partnership.

Emilio Izaguirre has struggled to recapture the impressive form he showed before suffering a serious ankle injury at Pittodrie in August 2011.

However, Adam Matthews and Mikael Lustig have both impressed at right-back.

Lennon's decision to field last season's player of the year Charlie Mulgrew further forward has, some would argue, led to an imbalance in both defence and midfield.

The Scotland star, with a dangerous left foot that can be used to good effect at set-pieces, looks more comfortable at centre-half, but the manager appears reluctant to break the Wilson/Ambrose partnership.

Kelvin Wilson and Efe Ambrose

Kelvin Wilson and Efe Ambrose have formed a jittery central defensive partnership

"I was initially delighted when Ambrose arrived because he could get the ball and step out with it and play," added Bonner.

"Celtic needed that type of player. But the problem they have is that he and Wilson don't seem to have formed a solid defensive partnership.

"At times they've been exposed because the full-backs have pushed so far forward.

"The full-backs appear allowed to go forward together. In our day it was always one full-back would advance and the other would stay back and tuck in.

"That's not the case in the current Celtic side's formation and that's probably taken away a bit from their defensive qualities. But they've scored goals and they're an exceptional team going forward."

Victor Wanyama has been a colossus in midfield and his displays have drawn praise from all quarters, including Juventus's veteran playmaker Andrea Pirlo.

So, how should Celtic's season be judged this season - with a league title, potential Scottish Cup and a run to the last 16 of the Champions League?

"I'd give them an 8 out of 10," concluded Bonner. "If you win the league and cup double, with the run you've had in the Champions League; that's what Neil Lennon's been given the responsibility to do and he can pleased with that."

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