Celtic tipped for top spot again
Celtic head into the new Scottish Premier League campaign as firm favourites to retain the title despite a close-season scarred by discontent over the club's lack of transfer activity.
Gordon Strachan's side clinched their third championship in a row on the final day of last season, and although they have been unable to significantly strengthen the squad, the Parkhead outfit remain the bookmakers' choice to finish top again.
There is only one new face around the Celtic changing room, with low-key signing Paddy McCourt joining from Derry City. Greek striker Giorgios Samaras, who spent the end of last season on loan at Parkhead, has also joined the club on a permanent deal from Manchester City.
But the squad could soon be strengthened by the potential signings of Barcelona midfielder Marc Crosas and Auxerre's Romanian defender Gabriel Tamas, who starred at UEFA EURO 2008. The club was also given a boost when young Irish international Aiden McGeady, who had attracted interest from English Premier League clubs, recently signed a new five-year deal.
Strachan has been hindered in his attempts to bolster his squad by the presence of Thomas Gravesen and Bobo Balde on the wage bill. Both players have been told to find new clubs but have yet to leave.
Encouragement has been thin on the ground during Celtic's pre-season. In early trial games, they drew against Middlesbrough and lost to FA Cup finalists Cardiff. The Parkhead club then defeated Porto before being taken to task by Tottenham in a 2-0 defeat at the Feyenoord Jubilee Tournament in Holland.
Celtic finished the tournament with a resounding 3-1 defeat of their hosts, and finish their pre-season preparations when they face Manchester City at Parkhead on Wednesday.
Big one for Brown
It will be a big season for record Scottish signing Scott Brown. The 23-year-old never hit the heights at Parkhead he had previously reached with Hibernian last season, but it later emerged the midfielder's sister was battling the cancer she died of earlier this year. The Scottish international is desperate to hit the ground running this season to cement his place in the Celtic starting line-up.
Brown isn't the only one with doubters to silence. Despite winning three successive titles, Strachan has yet to be fully accepted by some sections of the Celtic crowd.
Last season, with the Parkhead side out of both domestic cup competitions and lagging behind Rangers in the chase for the SPL championship, there were calls by some supporters for Strachan to go. He will hope to build on the momentum of a miraculous turnaround in the final two months, which saw Celtic go on a late surge, including back-to-back defeats of their Old Firm rivals to clinch the title.
Strachan's record in Europe has recovered well from an embarrassing Champions League exit to Slovakian side Artmedia Bratislava in his first season in charge. The former Manchester United and Leeds player has now led Celtic to the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League two seasons running, something not achieved by fans' favourite Martin O'Neill during his time at the helm.
But it is still to be seen whether this will buy Strachan any time from the Parkhead faithful if early results don't go his way.