Saturday, July 23, 2011

SPL: Hibs v Celtic

The first of Sunday's two SPL games as Celtic travel to Hibs to give a green tinge to the opening weekend.

The Game

For a variety of reasons, some of which are explored below, this is an away win for me. End of.*

Hibs

Well, what a swell summer it's been for Hibs. Managerial uncertainty has swirled, training ground punches have been hurled and transfer deals have unfurled.

There's still no guarantee that Colin Calderwood will remain in place with Birmingham's interest not yet completely cooled.

The close season, so hot on the heels of a dismal season, has been a series of calamities for Hibs. The result is an apathy that will translate into empty seats this afternoon.

I'm told that I am too negative. Perhaps. But don't waste your breathe on a broken old pessimist like me. Send your vibes of positivity to the manager whose press conference on Friday carried all the joy of a doctor diagnosing the local vicar's herpes.

Either Calderwood owns the greatest poker face of all time or he's as convinced as a number of fans that Hibs are going to start this season much as they finished off the last one.

Asked to sum up the club's transfer activity over the summer I offered "insufficient."

I stand by that. The signing of centre half Sean O'Hanlon will strengthen a defence that stuggled last season, bring experience to a young backline.

The arrival of Garry O'Connor and Ivan Sproule must both be seen as gambles. Time will tell but there's a hell of a lot riding on them rediscovering what once made them tick at Easter Road.

There's no room for brief flurries of form, heroic and well timed cameos. They have to deliver consistently and act as senior members of a young squad that lacks real depth. Big ask, big risk.

Certainly most supporters might have expected Hibs to strengthen more than they have. Junior Agogo awaits international clearance, Cillian Sheridan has found his way to St Johnstone in another of Hibs' summertime PR accidents.

Elsewhere cover is provided by youngsters. Promising youngsters but often untried youngsters. Youngsters who would no doubt impress if introduced sensitively to a settled, successful team. But who might just feel the pressure in a struggling team with supporters getting increasingly edgy.

So it would be a good idea for Hibs to avoid being a struggling team this season. Easier said than done.

A lot depends, as I think it does for many clubs, on how well they start. Celtic at home and Inverness away are either horrible opening fixtures or a fantastic opportunity to deliver a real statement of intent and banish thoughts of last season and this unsatisfactory summer.

Start poorly, especially with restless natives in the support, and the pressure builds and the chances of last season being repeated increase.

Twitter tips: Victor Palsson, Callum Booth, Matt Thornhill

Celtic

A quiet close season by Celtic's standards. In come Adam Matthew and Kelvin Wilson but Celtic have been happy not to rush into anything when in possession of the SPL's strongest squad.

The window still has a way to run but Celtic's transfer activity, both in and out, seems to have been restricted more to the rumour round-ups than the realm of truth.

Which leaves Neil Lennon with a squad that impressed a lot in falling so agonisingly short last season. And now they have the added experience of that bitter disappointment.

A healthy enough combination for the manager and one that has seen any number of pundits (this one included) naming them as favourites for the SPL.

Which for many of us is a revisiting of old failures. We predicted Celtic would win the title last season, possibly the season before, maybe even the season before that. And they came up short. Each league was lost in a different way. But each league was lost.

That can't happen again. The cards once more seem stacked in Celtic's favour, to lose a fourth title in a row would raise questions. Questions about the manager, questions about the direction of the club.

The good news is that this was a team which often impressed last season and which should, really, really should, have learnt from the mistakes and lapses that somehow rendered a total of 92 points good enough only for second place in the league.

I would be surprised if a goalkeeper doesn't arrive before the transfer window closes but it's at the other end where Celtic are to be feared. They have options, they have speed and they have cunning in attack. That's a combination that will make many an SPL defence quiver with fear.

So, the title is Celtic's to lose? It might be more apt to say the title is Celtic's to win. But we've been in this position before, indeed there were times last season when they looked as if they had won the league.

Being the most ruthless team when you're on your game, being the most flamboyant team on any given day, being the most incisive team when you're in the mood. All of that is wonderful, at times thrilling, but it takes more to win a league title.

Having come up short last season Celtic will be well aware of these lessons. If they've managed to learn them then the trophy might just be heading to Celtic Park in May.

Twitter tips: Gary Hooper, Kris Commons, Anthony Stokes

* Of course my ability to get predictions wrong is amazing. Even this pessimistic Hibs fans accepts that you can never really know. Even when you probably do know.