Last season was a strange one in so many ways and it's worth going back a year before actually looking ahead.
Off the back of 55, the beginning of 2021/22 wasn't great by failing to beat Malmo to reach the CL group stage and a stuttering start in the league still seen us develop a reasonable gap to Celtic and try and consolidate the previous year's title win. However, our form wasn't great and it wasn't long until Steven Gerrard moved on at the same time as Hibs hammered us at Hampden. In the new year, we didn't fare much better: a delayed winter break derailed improved form under new manager Gio and, by the end of February, we'd not only allowed Celtic back into the title race but had effectively ended our own chances.
Despite that surrender in the league, our efforts in Europe were a different story. An unlikely trouncing of Dortmund and fine wins over Red Star, Braga and Leipzig seen us reach the Europa League Final whilst domestically our form had also improved and we dug deep to reach the Scottish Cup final from a losing position against Celtic. Unfortunately, we couldn't quite go all the way in Seville but, to their immense credit, the players did manage to secure a domestic trophy a few days later versus Hearts. OK, not a vintage year in terms of tangible success but still a season we are allowed to enjoy and remember fondly forever.
However, that's now in the past and we need more from season 2022/23.
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First and foremost, we need to get off to a good start in the league tomorrow against Livingston and hit the ground running when we travel to Belgium to face Union SG next Tuesday. To that end our pre-season form has been acceptable enough - solid wins over Blackpool and West Ham were followed by defeat against Spurs in the Walter Tull Memorial Cup - but the general impression is one of a fairly familiar tactical set-up with some new faces to complement our efforts from last season.
Losing the desire of the increasingly impressive Calvin Bassey and the unpredictable brilliance of Joe Aribo isn't good news in anyone's book but the huge sums taken in from selling them on have helped us reshape the squad. In particular, the acquisitions of Colak, Lawrence, Tillman and Matondo should give us more depth in attack - an area where often struggled to convert chances in domestic matches - whilst new defenders Souttar, Davies and Yilmaz will offer an improved and more efficient transition from defence to forward areas. In midfield, the retention of Kamara, Jack and Lundstram will again ensure a strong platform to dominate most matches.
In general terms, there's no doubt the squad is bigger and better than before - we simply couldn't rely on the fitness of players like Helander, Jack and Roofe - and that has to be a good thing when we consider we played 65 games last season - not to mention any international obligations on a few individual players. There's also a good balance to the squad in terms of experience and potential. Securing Connor Goldson on a new contract was fantastic news whilst, as much as some fans have doubted the extensions offered to McGregor, Davis and Arfield, the experience these players can offer the likes of Yilmaz, Tillman and Lowry should not be under-estimated. Finally, there's a flexibility about the personnel that should make us less predictable and more able to change tack in challenging situations.
All things considered, we can approach the new campaign with a measure of quiet confidence. The squad is better, the management team have had more time to implement their ideas, fans have renewed in incredible numbers and, whilst we're perhaps still short of one or two players, the foundation is there for a successful season at home and abroad.
However, whilst things may look good on paper as I write this, the hard work is just about to start and a visit to Livingston represents the unique challenge the SPFL can offer. Dreadful artificial pitches (welcome back Killie), awful officials (we won't see VAR until 2023), often average but very hard-working opposition sides and away supports desperate to see us fail. Quite simply, we're not entitled to win any game so our efforts must be 100% and nothing less. No complaints about this - it's the same for everyone after all - and the vast majority of the squad should know all about this by now.
In terms of tomorrow's visit to West Lothian, the starting XI should have a familiar look to it. The artificial surface may mean one or two players are not risked but hopefully a couple of new faces bring a freshness to our outlook at a venue we don't always convince at. As for the opposition, Davie Martindale will be keen to ensure Livi get off to a good start themselves and has made several changes to his squad over the summer as well. Andrew Shinnie and Bruce Anderson will again offer an attacking threat on the counter and Esmaël Gonçalves will be keen to impress on his return to the SPFL. Whilst we beat Livingston at Ibrox in our first game last season, we also lost our first away match at Tannadice the following week so the players should be highly motivated tomorrow.
In conclusion there's nothing new about the journey we're about to embark on. It's a well trodden path and we should be well prepared for it. As always our aim should be a title win and European progression via CL group stage qualification. Once more unto the breach, my friends....
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