SPORT on MONDAY

Ken McNab’s sports takeawayMcNab Ken.jpg 2

But I’m hoping to cast an unbiased look over the weekend action north and south of the border and give a balanced view on the major topics.  Feel free to feed back. I’m up for the bantz. But keep it civil. And remember…it’s only fitba’.

 

A GENUINE LEAGUE CAMPAIGN KEEPS EVERYONE IN WITH A SHOUT

Whisper it. Keep the idea to yourselves. But could Scottish football see a genuine title race this season? The early signs offer up a tantalising hope that the gap between Celtic and the rest may be starting to creep genuinely closer.

Saturday’s 1-0 defeat to Hearts saw Brendan Rodgers’ side stumble then fall off the Tynecastle tightrope, leaving Craig Levein’s team looking down from the unfamiliar viewpoint of the Premiership summit. In their slipstream come Hibernian, Rangers, Kilmarnock and Aberdeen. And it’s only when you get to sixth place that Celtic come on the board. It’s been an unsettling week for the champions. Last week’s draw with AEK Athens leaves their Champions League ambitions on a knife edge (though one away goal tomorrow can tip the tie back in Celtic’s favour)).

And talk of a rift – denied by all parties – between Rodgers and the Parkhead powerbrokers over transfer targets has seen the predictable roll-out of ‘Trouble in Paradise” headlines. And then came the weekend reports that Belgian defender Dedryck Boyata had downed tools over an increasingly fractious contract stand-off.

So, it’s possible for some to conclude that the Celtic engine, having run so well under Rodgers for the past two seasons, is now showing signs of wear and tear.
Let’s be clear. Rodgers is THE most important man at Celtic. His record since pitching up in Glasgow’s east end two summers ago guarantees his place in the Parkhead pantheon. Historic back-to-back trebles. The 2016-17 Invincibles. Champions League group stage qualification for two seasons. The financial upshot? A £60million bounty allegedly sloshing in the club’s coffers and a balance sheet that is easily the envy of every other club in the country.

It has indeed been a match made in a green and white Shangri-la. Nothing, though, lasts forever. Football’s stairway to heaven can quickly become a highway to hell. And when the Celtic manager talks of “terminado” and of his team stagnating, fans are right to be alarmed.

He will not be the chief target of their ire, though he is not immune from criticism. (Martin Compper for a kick-off) This week will see the stiffest test of Rodgers’ management in Scotland so far. And nowhere will the heat be felt more keenly than amid the searing temperatures of Athens Olympic Stadium tomorrow night.

An away victory over AEK Athens will be a pointed riposte to the naysayers revelling in Celtic’s current discomfort. Defeat, though, will only ramp up further the sight of Rodgers blinking even more under an ever-present spotlight. The parachute ripcord of the Europa League will break his fall, but it will seem like slim pickings for a club used to dining at Europe’s top table. And the fare will taste that bit more bitter come Friday morning if Rangers and Hibs remain in the competition. Of course, context is everything.

The season is in its nappies. We are only two games into a domestic campaign that even at its outset promised a greater challenge to Celtic’s supremacy. But already we are seeing signs of battle being properly joined. I can’t remember the last time the Scottish top-flight boasted such a fine roster of talent in the dugout.

Under Steven Gerrard, a resurgent Rangers are beginning to look like the sum of their parts while still resembling a huge work in progress; Neil Lennon is fighting tooth and nail to build on the progress of last season at Easter Road; across the Capital, Levein, the arch wind-up merchant of Scottish football, is building a bond of brothers if Saturday’s goal celebration is anything to go by; Steve Clarke will be determined to prove Kilmarnock have the cohones to avoid second-season syndrome; And Derek McInnes knows Aberdeen have a real battle on their hands to maintain their familiar esprit de corps ‘best of the rest’.

Rangers remain the most compelling piece of the Premiership jigsaw even at this early stage. On the pitch, signs of a better overall picture are starting to emerge following the Caixihna catastrophe and the Murty misstep. Saturday’s win over newly-promoted St Mirren was hardly vintage but there was perhaps enough blue steel on show to suggest Gerrard, already fomenting a them-against-us mentality, has installed a mettle detector within the Ibrox ranks. Off the pitch, however, controversy always seems no more than a headline way. All Gerrard can do, though, is inoculate himself and his team from the lurgy that still pervades the body politic at Ibrox.

Buckle up for a roller-coaster thirty six league games to go. Whisper it. Even in the tribal-infested waters of Scottish football, isn’t it better for everyone to have a league worth shouting about?

IS MOURINHO’S MOANING PART OF AN OLD TRAFFORD EXIT STRATEGY?

Jose Mourinho has become English football’s version of the Reverend I.M. Jolly. Unsmiling, neurotic and cynical, he continues to suck all the joy out of the beautiful game. Once hailed as a genius of man-management, he now comes across as an embittered individual who sees suspicion in every dressing room peg.

Beside the likes of his old foe Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, he looks like yesterday’s man. Manchester United, for all they continue to grind out results, are a poor shadow of former teams. Gone is the verve and swagger of Sir Alex Ferguson’s sides. In its place is a stilted, defensive game plan built on boring teams into submission.

God knows how they managed to come second last year. Can’t see it happening this season. Ferguson and Sir Bobby Charlton must surely be horrified that the altar on which Manchester United’s proud footballing pedigree was built continues to be so systematically dismantled by Mourinho. Not to mention the damage being inflicted on the club’s brand by the Portuguese’s petulant outbursts.

If United fail to show serious improvement, expect a vacancy in the dugout by December. But don’t shed any tears for the self-anointed Special One. No industry rewards failure like football.

LAURA’S GOLD MEDAL WAS JUST WHAT THE DOCTOR ORDERED

Hearty congratulations are due to (Doctor) Laura Muir on her 1500 metres gold medal at the European Championships in Berlin. She is now the heir apparent to Eilidh Doyle as the poster girl of Scottish athletics.

Muir was heavy favourite to triumph but how often have we seen our own stumble and fall just when the winning post comes into sight? Remember, too, that she sacrificed running at this year’s Commonwealth Games to focus on her Glasgow University vet studies and graduated with flying colours.  A gold medal was just what the doctor ordered.

On the subject of the European Championships, Glasgow can be proud of the part the city played by hosting so many excellent events. The swimming at Tollcross produced some memorable performances, as did the cycling at the Chris Hoy Velodrome.

And thousands thronged the city centre streets on Sunday for the men’s cycle road race. We’re quick to give ourselves a kicking when things go wrong. So a pat on the back is surely merited.

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