‘For it’s a grand old team to play for, for it’s a grand old team to see, and if you know the history…’
For years, Celtic fans have enjoyed belting out these lyrics to one of their favourite songs but as their team prepares to take on Aberdeen in the Scottish Cup Final with a sought-after Treble within touching distance, just how good is the current crop of Parkhead stars?
Having proved themselves to be a class apart from their rivals this season, Brendan Rodgers’ men, who completed a record-breaking league campaign undefeated after their 2-0 win over Hearts, stand on the threshold of something very special.
Rangers were the last team to go unbeaten in season 1898-99, but they played only 18 games, so Rodgers’ team has done it playing twice as many matches. Celtic join Arsenal (2003-04) and Juventus (2011-12) in being unbeaten over a 38-game league season.
Leaving the fabled Lisbon Lions on their lofty throne, statistics since the former Liverpool boss took over at Celtic last summer certainly suggest this is one of the best teams to grace the Parkhead turf in modern-day history.
In all domestic competitions they are unbeaten in 46 games this season (38 in league, eight in cups), and 47 domestic matches overall including the final league game of last season.
They are unbeaten in 31 games in all competitions since losing to Barcelona in the Champions League on 23 November.
Celtic also set new records for the Scottish Premier League/Premiership era, including goals, points, wins and margin of victory.
It’s easy to forget that the new job didn’t start off too well for the manager, with Gibraltar minnows Lincoln Red Imps inflicting an embarrassing 1-0 defeat on Celtic in Rodgers’ first game in charge in July 2016.
The Champions League qualifying campaign may have taken an unlikely turn for the worse on The Rock but it was to be a minor stumble on the road to salvation after Ronnie Deila’s time at the helm.
The Celts soon regained their pride on the European stage with qualification into the group stages, though the chances of emerging from a group containing Barcelona, Manchester City and Borussia Monchengladbach were always going to be slim. Two draws against City and a point in Germany being the highlights.
It has been closer to home, though, where Celtic have made such an impression.
The runaway Premiership champions set a new points and goals record while storming to a sixth consecutive title. With the League Cup safely secured, only the Dons stand between Celtic and the domestic clean sweep as the teams go into battle at Hampden Park next Saturday.
Many observers have started making favourable comparisons to some of the great sides of the past, most notably the one Martin O’Neill guided to the Treble in his first season in 2001. And yes, this was a fine team which excelled despite a much stronger opposition.
The squad which reached the final of the UEFA Cup in 2003 only to be outfoxed in extra time by Jose Mourinho’s Porto in Seville was also a formidable outfit boasting the likes of Chris Sutton, Neil Lennon, John Hartson, Paul Lambert Stilian Petrov, Alan Thompson and the talismanic Henrik Larsson.
This was a powerful nucleus of players around whom O’Neill’s success was built. But let’s remember the financial rewards were different back then and played a big part in keeping the players happy.
A good gauge would be to look at the current Celtic side and ask which players would get into O’Neill’s team. Moussa Dembele, Scott Sinclair, Scott Brown, Kieran Tierney, Craig Gordon and Stuart Armstrong would all surely be strong contenders so it clearly stands comparison.
In moulding Celtic into such an irresistible force this season, albeit in a comparatively weaker league than during O’Neill’s tenure, Rodgers has already proved his worth as a manager.
In truth it is too early to accurately compare his team to previous sides. If he was to repeat the success next season, then the team would rightly have claim to being the best since the Lions.
As for Aberdeen? Well the Dons appear to be at the peak of their powers under Derek McInnes, deservedly finishing in second place in the Premiership, albeit some considerable distance behind the champions.
The Pittodrie outfit failed to turn up at the League Cup Final earlier this season as they were swept aside by Celtic but Saturday’s showdown provides the ideal opportunity to silence those questioning their bottle on the big occasion.
A first win over Rangers at Ibrox since 1991 in midweek will have buoyed confidence levels ahead of the final, though it remains to be seen what effect the news that skipper Ryan Jack is leaving in the summer will have on morale.
Any team with a potent striker like Adam Rooney in their attack should not be written off and if Johnny Hayes is in the mood, then there might be some hope for Aberdeen.
It’s at the other end of the pitch, though, where they are likely to feel the pressure and if their defenders and outstanding goalkeeper Joe Lewis are not on top form, there will be only one outcome.