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Bhardwaj: Eight secured but will Lennon be on cloud nine?

Celtic are now one step away from the triple treble but it hasn't all been plain sailing.

Lennon guided Celtic over the line.
Lennon guided Celtic over the line. SNS Group

Eight league titles in a row. Eight domestic trophies in a row. One game from an unprecedented triple treble.

Celtic are league champions once again but while the flow of silverware to Glasgow's east end has been uninterrupted, the path to the title this year has had more bumps than fans have been used to in recent years.

With back-to-back trebles secured, there was no surprise when Celtic were installed as heavy favourites to lift the Premiership trophy and the side went into the new season with considerable momentum.

But the prize for being Scotland's entrants in Europe's elite competition is a tough slog through Champions League qualifying and an energy-sapping set of challenges before domestic competition gets seriously under way.

This time, Celtic stumbled and had to settle for Europa League football but along with the disappointment on the pitch against AEK Athens, tension in the relationships behind closed doors was beginning to show.

The first cracks between Brendan Rodgers and the Celtic hierarchy began to emerge, with the manager very publicly airing his frustration over Celtic's transfer dealings, or lack of.

Dedryck Boyata missed crucial European games claiming injury while his manager said he was fit. A rejected transfer bid seemed to be the source of the Belgian's bruises but a similar situation was to affect Celtic's most valuable asset.

Dembele left for a Scottish record fee.
Dembele left for a Scottish record fee. SNS Group

Moussa Dembele's burning desire to quit Celtic for Lyon became abundantly clear. After the champions rejected a bid from the French side, insisting their striker wouldn't be sold, Dembele took to social media, having a pop at Brendan Rodgers and appearing to suggest the Celtic manager had gone back on his word.

His desperation to leave became even more apparent during a training session on the final day of the transfer window and just two days before the visit of Rangers. Watching the first 15 minutes of the session, which is open to the media, I was keen to see the striker's reaction. I wasn't the only one.

With a face like thunder, he arrived last on to the pitch. The group had already started their run, before he even had his bib on.

He was utterly disinterested. This was a proper strop. The actions of someone with his body at the foot of the Campsie Fells, but his mind somewhere in France.

I vividly recall Rodgers turning to his backroom team Chris Davies, Kolo Toure and John Kennedy with a 'What d'ya think chaps?' look. Within minutes Dembele was out of there and heading to France.

The training ground may have been the place for strained relationships but on the playing field there were also signs that a third season of unparalleled success would not come easy. Hearts took three points in the second league game and points were dropped away to St Mirren in mid-September with Kilmarnock defeating the champions a week later.

Christie made a valuable contribution.
Christie made a valuable contribution. SNS Group

The response to setbacks came from within. Aberdeen were defeated by a single goal and then the goals came. Six against St Johnstone, four against Hibs, five against Dundee and Hearts with Ryan Christie beginning a purple patch that showed he had matured into a significant figure.

With things clicking into place, it seemed a return to business as usual but even so, I was surprised that it took until the last week in November for Celtic to be clear at the top on points.

Dropped points against Motherwell and Hibs helped the chasing pack, including city rivals Rangers under Steven Gerrard.

Sandwiched between those games, news emerged about Leigh Griffiths' mental health issues. The striker was in a bad place. The club and their supporters gave him their 100% backing.

The last league game of 2018 saw Rodgers take his side to Ibrox and there he suffered his only defeat against the side in blue. Ryan Jack's goal saw talk of a genuine title race grow and left Celtic heading into the winter break on a low.

Rangers signalled their intent with the acquisition of Jermaine Defoe and Steven Davis. Former Celtic striker Chris Sutton described the signings as a game changer in the title race. It wasn't.

Rather, the January signings of Oliver Burke and Timothy Weah brought a much-needed freshness and zip to Celtic's attack.

And as has become almost traditional, the squad decamped to Dubai to "recharge the batteries". When they came back, they were electric.

Cup progress was achieved, and although they bowed out of the Europa League to Valencia, the defending champions put the foot down. Seven league games were won on the bounce, the first six without conceding a goal.

Rodgers' exit did not go down well.
Rodgers' exit did not go down well. SNS Group

And then, on February 26, Brendan Rodgers abruptly left the club to return to the English Premier League. The man who was adored for achieving the unthinkable, was now hated by many Celtic fans. Judas, snake, not one of us - take your pick; this wasn't an act befitting of a Celtic manager, according to the faithful. His departure may have come as a shock to them, but perhaps not the Celtic hierarchy.

Leicester's interest didn't develop overnight. The Foxes might have made a concrete move in December. Add to that, Rodgers - very early in the campaign - put it out there that he turned down a megabucks offer from China. Messrs Lawwell and Desmond are sharp, well-connected guys. They knew what hand was being played.

The board acted quickly and appointed Neil Lennon, a manager who had been at the helm for three of the titles in the current run and knew Celtic Park and the Lennoxtown training complex as well as anyone. For Lennon, it was both interim job and audition for the role of permanent successor to Rodgers. During his first stint, he vowed to bring back the thunder. This time, it was a different sort of pressure.

Positive results continued to rack up, including a 2-1 win over Rangers in a dramatic match at Celtic Park and the team showed their hunger for continued success, regaining the priceless habit of scoring late, late goals.

The games clocked up and the title became a formality but the cup brought further joy with a win over Aberdeen sealing another Hampden appearance.

Lennon returned to lead the club over the line.
Lennon returned to lead the club over the line. SNS Group

If Lennon was effectively auditioning for the job, the players weren't helping his cause. Goalless draws against Aberdeen, Livingston and Hibs and the jury was not so much out, but maybe out of sight. Lennon and his team will point to stats: attacks, attempts on goal, near misses. The bottom line is putting the ball in the pokey, something Celtic fans expect - regularly.

Now, the lead can't be caught and Celtic are champions again. No two titles are the same and players who have grown together over recent years have dealt with new challenges.

Two pieces of silverware down and another historic achievement is possible on the last day of the season. But for now, players and staff will take a moment to reflect on the marathon of the league being won with something to spare.

That still leaves the question of the manager to be answered. Would Lennon be a popular choice long-term?

I've spoken to a number of Celtic fans and the feelings are mixed. Lennon is Mr Celtic. He kickstarted this run of eight league titles. Ten in a row is the be all and end all. Some want Lennon to be the man to try and deliver that. Others don't.

Only Peter Lawwell and Dermot Desmond will know which direction they will travel on the managerial front, but my gut feeling - and it's nothing more than that - is they will look to someone else.

But if my instincts are wrong and Lennon is offered the gig, will he have a decision to make? I'm told he's in the mix for jobs in England, with interest from abroad, too. Celtic's whopping wage bill is hitting the £60m mark and will need looked at.

For all the trophies he has won, the two that matter most are the two still to be achieved. The pressure to deliver ten is huge for whoever is appointed. One's iconic status can be shattered if it isn't.

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