Brendan Rodgers bangs his head against Celtic’s glass ceiling

Guardian Web |

A wider desperation for Rangers to create a title race in Scotland has not been difficult to trace in the past week. Whereas the noncompetitive nature of a league that has been won by Celtic for the last six years is alarming in itself, there is a depressing element to the narrative whereby only the Old Firm must dominate the Scottish game in supplying something akin to a natural order.

Brendan Rodgers has indulged in some traditional managerial sport by insisting there is “huge pressure” on in-form Rangers as they prepare to host Celtic on Sunday. The reality is, should Celtic not retain their title, it would be Rodgers feeling intense heat.

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It would seem ludicrous to suggest the Northern Irishman wants Rangers to present a serious challenge to his Celtic side but there have been recent indications of Rodgers needing more to sustain him. This leads towards what will be a fascinating summer scenario, whereby he must decide – and it will be his decision – whether to remain in the office he has held since 2016. It has been a slow burner but Rodgers appears to be realising that Scotland’s most prosperous club face a glass ceiling. Just as Rodgers would not be interested in the signing of players for whom Scotland is the extent of their aspirations, the manager is entitled to eye prime European leagues.

When Rodgers speaks of working in his dream job there is no hint of exaggeration. He has a personal connection to Celtic and its support which means this position represented more of a calling than a career box to tick. As Rodgers guided Celtic to a domestic treble without losing a single match last season, fans lauded their managerial messiah in a manner not witnessed since the heady – and expensive – days of Martin O’Neill. Even Neil Lennon, a man immersed in Celtic and their culture, did not receive the level of adulation bestowed on Rodgers.

Those in the stands were perfectly correct to feel they could not get enough of that good thing. For all that the League Cup has already been successfully defended, Celtic are in the last four of the Scottish Cup and a championship advantage over Sunday’s opposition should be pressed home, there has been a perhaps natural drop in standards. Celtic’s Champions League draw was unfavourable – Bayern Munich and Paris St-Germain sat alongside them – but there were harrowing evenings and precious few glimpses of improvement. Rodgers, earlier such an advocate of a reinvigorated squad, took to searing criticism of the same players on more than one occasion. He again made his feelings clear as Celtic were bundled out of the Europa League by Zenit St Petersburg. Linked to this, naturally, will be Rodgers being protective of his legacy and keen to improve on his unimpressive European record.

Rodgers is both a strategist and a realist. His ambitions still lie in an English top flight where coming so close to glory at Liverpool before a wounding departure means he has unfinished business. The key for the 45-year-old is to ensure the stock of Celtic and himself remains high enough that he is not discounted as merely another manager who returned a perfectly natural level of success in Scotland. The perception that Celtic should dismantle all before them is both widespread and legitimate given their resources monopoly.

There should be no suggestion of Rodgers harbouring bad feeling towards his employers. An alternative attitude may well apply towards other elements of Scottish football; Rodgers has been cutting in criticism of pitches, fixture scheduling and refereeing standards. Being blunt, a coach who regards himself as Champions League in level will find league fixtures against Ross County and St Johnstone a challenge. Celtic boast, by the admission of their chief executive, Peter Lawwell, the strongest balance sheet in their history yet Rodgers has been quick to point out the coaxing of top players to Scotland now requires more than money. Recruitment has, in turn, been modest rather than eye-catching.

Related: Celtic tumble out of Europe with calamitous defeat in St Petersburg

There has, however, been plenty of scope for Rodgers to develop. Celtic’s routine domination of games requires an uncommon managerial approach. The level of expectation at this club is far in excess even of that at Liverpool. Not every manager has handled both scenarios nearly as competently as Rodgers.

The extent of Arsenal’s interest in Rodgers remains unclear. What seems certain is that Celtic’s manager could be readily tempted by one of the most prestigious jobs in Europe. Rodgers has far less interest in a lower-ranked Premier League post – and has spurned such advances already – which renders his next step, both in terms of timing and destination, a fascinating one. His willingness to sample fresh cultures makes a job in continental Europe inevitable at some stage.

“These are great games to be involved in,” said Rodgers on Friday of a trip to Ibrox. Celtic’s manager relishes high-profile occasions; the issue is whether he now samples enough of them.

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