Stars aligning for SPL's Celtic, Lennon
Bobby McMahon is the lead analyst for FOX Soccer Report, airing nightly at 10:00 p.m. ET on FOX Soccer Channel.
A Rangers rally a couple of weeks ago stopped Celtic from securing its 43rd Scottish League Championship at the home of its most bitter rival. But Rangers' 3-2 win has only served to delay the inevitable.
Ironically, the opportunity to clinch the title comes this Saturday, when Celtic travels to Rugby Park to play Kilmarnock: the team that beat them 1-0 in the Scottish League Cup Final.
The dream of a fourth domestic treble for Celtic may have been ended by Kilmarnock, but a double is still possible against Hearts on April 15 (Aberdeen plays Hibernian the day before).
A successful Scottish Cup campaign would have Celtic retaining the trophy for the first time since 2005. Current manager, Neil Lennon, was the captain then and captured 11 trophies during his playing career with the club.
Lennon was a defensive midfield player, who managed to mask his weakness (lack of pace) with an incredible ability to read and snuff out danger. He was also a very polarizing figure who generated as much love as he did loathing.
It is a characteristic he maintained with his move into management.
Lennon took on a coaching role at Parkhead in 2008, and was appointed the team's caretaker manager after Tony Mowbray was fired in March 2010. Lennon took over with player and fan morale at its lowest.
But Celtic's board saw enough in Lennon to appoint him to a permanent position three months later. Few could have anticipated how quickly Lennon would turn Celtic's fortunes around.
He set about retooling the side with a vengeance. A number of players were sold or released, and replaced with younger and hungrier options. The turnover has not only led to success on the field, it also allowed Lennon to generate a transfer surplus estimated at $8million.
Last season, Celtic pushed Rangers to the last day of the season before finishing a point behind and eventually loss to the Ibrox side in extra time in the SLC Final. There was, however, a Scottish Cup win against Motherwell.
This season did not start particularly well, with three Celtic defeats in its first nine games. Meanwhile, Rangers started off at a blistering pace with 12 wins and three draws in 15 matches.
It was a 3-3 draw with Kilmarnock in mid-October that started Celtic on a 21-game unbeaten run, made up of 18 wins and 3 losses. Only nine goals were conceded during that spell thanks to a parsimonious defense.
Rangers had a poor Christmas season losing to St Mirren, and Celtic and the latter result moved Celtic to the top of the SPL.
Then came Rangers' spring financial implosion that resulted in a 10-point deduction and three losses in four games.
For Celtic fans, it seems that the stars are aligning. With a young side that should improve and with Rangers struggling to secure its future, it has a chance to enter a new golden era - or as golden as Scottish football can be in this day and age.
Lennon was part of the Celtic side that was runner-up to Jose Mourinho's Porto in the 2003 UEFA Cup Final and will be eager - as will the fans - to reestablish the Bhoys on the European scene. That means making it to at least the group stage of the Champions League next season for the days of an automatic spot for the Scottish Champions in the last 32 are gone.
Next season, Celtic will have two rounds to successfully traverse if it's to make it to the group stage. The good news is Celtic will be in the domestic champions section, which offers a better chance than the more competitive non-champions sector.
Because the UEFA coefficient rankings impact future European competition places, we already know that Scotland's domestic champions will be required to successfully negotiate three rounds of play to make it to the group stage in 2013-14.
When you consider that in 2010-11 Rangers received a bye into the group stage as Scottish champions, the fall is emblematic of the poor performances by Scottish clubs in Europe.
The only way to improve a country's coefficient is for its representatives to win more games. For that reason, all Scottish fans - even Rangers ones - should be wishing Celtic (and Lennon) success next season in Europe. Yes, even if it hurts.