Go on, admit it! If someone had said to you this time last year after Celtic were handed the 2019/20 league title in March, we'd be sitting in mid April 2021 having won our 55th title an impressive five weeks before, you'd think they were a few sandwiches short of a picnic.
Sure, there had been signs of progress under Steven Gerrard. Our European efforts were, by and large, very good since he had taken over. We'd also started to offer Celtic difficulties in our head-to-head matches and showed we could beat them home and away. Importantly, our style of football was good and our system worked fairly well at home and abroad. We'd also reached the League Cup final and, arguably, should have won from a match we dominated. However, all these positives aside, there was still no success and, once again, when the tough got going after Christmas, the team and any silverware challenge fell apart.
With that in mind, the transformation this season has been nothing short of startling. Yes, the same positives were there: good football, another strong Europa League showing and an early league victory at Parkhead. This laid solid foundations when it came to renewing supporter confidence whilst the players themselves were showing a steadfastness, a bona fide belief, that wasn't always evident before. And all this was happening with no fans in stadiums, without that 12th man Ibrox often provides.
That didn't mean the season wasn't without it's challenges. Draws away to Livingston and Hibs in August and September asked questions of the management in particular and, arguably it was that first draw in West Lothian, that perhaps changed our mindset tactically. The overly negative Jack and Kamara double pivot was dispensed with, the experience and quality of Steven Davis was reintroduced and, a general sense, we didn't look back. Only the late loss away to St Mirren in the League Cup has brought any real pain in a, so far, undefeated league season and few teams have managed to lay a glove on us home or away.
That meant our 55th Scottish top league title was delivered earlier than anyone thought possible. To do this in the first week of March remains, to me, still somewhat unbelievable and not always easy to comprehend as our form in the New Year was the polar opposite of previous recent campaigns. Sure, draws away at Motherwell and Hamilton through January and February weren't ideal but further wins over Celtic, Aberdeen and Hibs built us a buffer no other team were going to breach. Celtic's dubious deeds in Dubai helped but, by the time, they drew away to Dundee Utd last month, the league was already gone. After ten long years in the wilderness, 55 was finally here and it's an achievement we won on the field, fairly and squarely and all under our own steam.
That was five weeks ago and, as much, as that success is something to be savoured, much work remains to be done. Trinkets such as an 'invincible' league season where we can go undefeated and/or better Arsenal's goal concession record of 15 goals would be nice and deservedly lauded but I'd suggest winning the Scottish Cup is much, much more important. Doing that, and beating Celtic on the way, would hammer home our dominance of this season. It would put to bed any (already silly) suggestion that Celtic remain the better side and have just been unlucky due to Covid circumstances. And, it would increase the winning experiences of our squad in bringing back a trophy we've not won since 2008/09.
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Understandably our form hasn't been quite as good since the title was secured. Players haven't exactly downed tools or gone on their summer holidays early, we've just not been quite as fluent. The sustained loss to injury of Ryan Jack and our captain James Tavernier hasn't helped whilst influential players such as Arfield and Roofe haven't looked as sharp as they did earlier in the season before injuries of their own. Our balance in midfield doesn't look as strong and the disgusting treatment of Glen Kamara by Slavia Prague has undoubtedly affected his contribution. Even so, although we did exit European competition, draws away to Slavia and Celtic through March and solid wins against Cove and Hibs mean we remain tough to beat. However, if we're to win the Scottish Cup and lay down any markers for next season, then our form must improve over the coming six weeks. This season has not yet finished.
Dispatching of Celtic on Sunday won't be easy. Although they've yet to beat us this season, they did have strong periods in each of the last two games and are coming off the back of an impressive 6-0 demolition of Livingston last weekend. The Scottish Cup also remains their only chance of silverware this season so they have a lot to prove in this match. Fortunately, so do we. In that sense, our starting XI will be interesting. For example, in the 1-0 New Year derby win we struggled for much of the first half with a front three of Roofe, Kent and Morelos. Indeed, it wasn't until Ianis Hagi replaced Roofe for the second period that we started to properly come into the game. As such, it was perhaps no surprise to see Hagi start the last Old Firm fixture with the same deeper three of Aribo, Davis and Kamara; yet it can be argued that didn't work either - possibly more to due with Balogun struggling at right back - as Celtic had the better of the first hour in that match.
This weekend Patterson will start at right back and there's no doubt the youngster provides a much better balance on that flank. However, it will be a key decision of the manager to see who provides the defensive cover for him: will it be Arfield or Aribo or, as has happened more often since Jack has ben injured, will Kamara be deployed in the right side of our midfield three. And how will that decision affect our front three? A fully fit and sharp Kemar Roofe would arguably start but he may be kept for later in the game. As such, I think the manager will choose between Aribo, Hagi and Wright. For example, if Arfield is played deeper, the big Nigerian may be moved up a position, pragmatically strengthening our right side which did look weak at Parkhead (and against Slavia). Or the manager may favour a more attacking outlook with Hagi or Wright - the latter of whom may be asked to do a job similar to that of Brandon Barker in the 2-0 win over Celtic in October (where Arfield also started).
Indeed, it's that kind of flexibility and unpredictability that has strengthened our hand this season. Whilst most observers could pick their preferred starting XI for the majority of games, the manager now has the ability to change things to suit - whether that be down to injury or for tactical reasons. As such, it's genuinely difficult to predict our team for Sunday's match and that has to be a good thing, even if the players will know by now.
All things considered I think we'll see the team below but, if we consider the chance of extra time and penalties, it will absolutely be all about the squad as a whole on Sunday and going forward. Our 55th league title wasn't won with just eleven players: everyone in the squad had to play their part over a long, hard year. Be it Jon McLaughlin earlier in the season, Leon Balogun's excellent reliability, Nathan Patterson showing his potential, and other younger guys like Hagi and Itten who, perhaps not always regular starters, were first class in terms of their attitude - all that and more will be needed, not just on Sunday but further ahead into a new season where we will have to defend our position as Scotland's champions.
On that final note, there's no better place to do that, than a win over Celtic at Ibrox. Season 2020/21 has been an unqualified success but we can make it even better and lay the groundwork now for a similar campaign next season by winning on Sunday and going onto the reclaim the Scottish Cup. Just how good would that feel!
After ten years in the wilderness, if you thought the journey was over, you were wrong - it's only just beginning...
Possible XI (4-3-2-1)
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