Celtic the champers champions as their title success has fizz like few before it
A slow start, a set-back and then sizzle. Lots of sizzle, with slickest, scintillating football giving way to the stadium serenading Ange Postecoglou’s men in recognition of their favourites effectively sealed the title with a 4-1 swatting of Hearts. Only the arithmetic confirmation remains going into the final two games for Celtic. Nine points and 22 goals better off than second-placed Rangers - in action at home to Dundee United on Sunday to match their usurpers on the 36-game mark - the only unknown is the ultimate margin of success.
It is standard for Postecoglou and his players to make their way around the arena at the conclusion of every home encounter and acknowledge the backing from their home faithful. The lap of the ground, with the manager walking on his own 10 paces behind them, felt very different this time, though. It had greater resonance. As illustrated by Postecoglou waving furiously towards his two young son in the min stand before he consistently beat the Celtic logo on the chest of his lucky black jumper with his clenched fist as he communed with the fans in all four corners of the ground. Here was a lap that demanded the word honour be latched on it. And the honour that the Australian and his squad have brought to their club is of a magnitude that demands to be recognised in full.
The PA system may have blared out Daft Punk’s One More Time. A choice that could be taken as a reference to the imminent lifting of a 10th league trophy in 11 years for the club. Likewise with the faithful giving welly to the “champions again, oh-way, oh-way” chant, and an old school favourite “we’ve won the league again, fly the flag”. All touch on the regularity with which Celtic win titles. Heck, they will shortly be in the position of having snared 16 out of 22. Yet, not merely have the Parkhead club rarely enjoyed a championship triumph such as their latest. Rarely has anything like this been witnessed in the modern age in the Scottish game.
Some statistical context demands to be given. No fewer than 16 senior players have pitched at the club since Postecoglou was appointed last June. Nine of these are now first picks. Only captain Callum McGregor and Greg Taylor - two of the driving forces as Celtic had a fleet of them in running over the top of the Gorgie side - make the first XI when Postecoglou has every player available to him. Never before has there been such a turnover in a season for the team to which all others in the top flight must ultimately defer. In suffering three defeats and posting a draw across their first seven games, Celtic's route to taking the title from a Rangers team that left them for dust with a 25-point winning margin last season required recovering from position in mid-September when all appeared utterly lost. Not since the Ibrox side in 1993-94 has a team proved so faltering in this opening stretch of games and still won the league. And they then had a 44-match programme to mount their recovery. Postecoglou’s men were able to climb out the hole into which they had dug themselves because they have strung together 30 games cinch Premiership games unbeaten, winning 25 of these. Only twice since 1967-68 - the invincible seasons of Rangers last season, and Celtic in 2016-17 - have teams put together longer runs without loss in Scotland’s upper tier.
Celtic now sit on 89 points, so could finish with 95. In only two of their nine-in-a-row seasons did they rack up higher totals than 95. Their goal quartet against Hearts, which came after Ellis Simms had lashed in a low effort only three minutes in, took their goal haul to 85 for the campaign. It isn’t a stretch to consider that, between their trip to Dundee United on Wednesday and entertaining Motherwell in their closing encounter, they could match Rangers’ 92 total from their annus mirabilus of last term, when that tally underpinned their bursting through the 100 point threshold. Indeed, the flood of openings with which they submerged Robbie Neilson’s men could have practically taken them there on an afternoon when the celebratory boiled up following a simmering, subdued start to the afternoon for the hosts, on and off the pitch.
The transformation proved a consequence of Celtic being placed in a tricky spot through the concession of only a sixth goal in a home league game; a strike that put them behind for only a second time in Premiership on their own patch. Celtic slipped through the gears to motor their way back into the contest, and the revs that produced in turn engaged their support. Maybe they had a touch of fortune with referee Don Robertson failing to see the infringement by Callum McGregor on Toby Sibbick before the ball was swept forward for Jota to befuddle Stephen Kingsley before whipping in a right-wing cross that Daisen Maeda put away with aplomb to make it 1-1 on the half hour.
Hearts keeper Craig Gordon had thwarted Celtic on a couple of occasions before then, as they marauded forward with menace. Matt O’Riley an elegant, inventive presence and McGregor a bundle of energy as they combined with the fleet-footed Jota, Maeda and Kyogo Furuhashi to leave Hearts reeling. A first goal gave way to a second five minutes later with Furuhashi forcing in - despite Gordon clawing the ball out from just behind the line - after Celtic's on-loan Portuguese winger had out-jumped Harry Cochrane at the back post to set him up.
The two teams looked like they were in different footballing stratospheres in a one-sided second. Celtic's two goal return was meager on the play's balance. In 69 minutes, the shape-shifting O’Riley guided in a Taylor cross that found him on the right of goal shortly after he had cracked an exquisite effort off the post. With seconds of normal time, two of the substitutes linked up for the fourth, James Forrest cutting back for Giorgos Giakoumakis to cream a first-time effort past the helpless Gordon. It was a goal that franked a Postecoglou-patented performance of relentlessness and artful attacking. For a team that might be deemed champers champions so sparkling a brand of football has their manager made his mission.