THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

icon oldfirm08The absence of Rangers made Celtic's title a formality but cup competitions provided the thrills

The SPL's first season without Rangers was always going to be different. It wasn't clear where excitement could be found if the league became a predictable procession. Some wondered if Celtic's title – to borrow a phrase from pundits Mark Hateley and Craig Burley – would be "tainted" by Rangers' absence. And many wondered what constitutes success when a two-horse race loses one of its thoroughbreds.

These three questions have now been answered: you find excitement in knockout competitions. Celtic's title was won fairly against the best teams in Scotland, in far from the first season without sustained competition. And you would struggle to find a Celt unhappy with two trophies and a last-16 appearance in Europe.

Last summer, playing in the Champions League group stages was a hope rather than an expectation. Celtic sold Ki Sung-Yueng to Swansea for around £6 million, three times as much as they'd bought him for, prompting pundits to say they would desperately lack creativity in midfield. They had to knock out HJK Helsinki and Helsingborgs in qualifying – Celtic won all four games, scoring eight and conceding one.

But, back home, Celtic did miss Rangers in one respect. The league was less exciting; there were games in the autumn when even the players didn't seem able to motivate themselves and the march towards the title never became a close race. But the bottom line is: 44 and counting.

The season's best domestic drama came in both Scottish Cup semi-finals, Celtic beating Dundee United 4-3 after extra time a day after Hibernian achieved the same result against Falkirk, in pulsating games dominated by young players. In the League Cup, St Mirren were great value for their victory, beating Celtic 3-2 in the semi-final before winning against Hearts at Hampden. The success of Scotland's cup competitions mirrors Swansea, Bradford and Wigan's popular campaigns in England, in what looks like a trend as many leagues become more predictable.

But the greatest moment of the season was Tony Watt's goal against Barcelona – Tito Vilanova and Andrés Iniesta said they'd never experienced an atmosphere like it. Beating Barcelona at home, and Spartak Moscow home and away, brought international respect. Celtic are by far the wealthiest club in Scotland but in the Champions League they're more akin to a pensioner who's lost her invalidity benefit. It felt good when our wise buys from around the world proved their worth at the top table.

Many players have impressed at Celtic Park this season. Kris Commons controlled most league games since January. Joe Ledley and Charlie Mulgrew rarely put a foot wrong. Georgios Samaras has impressed in Europe, back on the left wing where he belongs. Adam Matthews is fast and talented while James Forrest and Watt have bags of potential and there's more where they came from. Holding on to Gary Hooper, Victor Wanyama and Fraser Forster will be difficult but the money Celtic have earned in the Champions League has removed the financial pressure to sell.

What that money means for the SPL is another matter – the predictability of the top flight is Scottish football's biggest problem. But you won't hear any complaints from the East End if Celtic reach ten in a row in 2021. Mark Poole

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