CELTIC might well have maintained their winning start to the Ladbrokes Premiership, and their three point cushion over Rangers at the top of the table, with their fifth consecutive league victory over Hamilton on Saturday. But, boy, was it close.

A fourth minute James Forrest goal, the winger’s seventh in his last 10 starts, was all that separated them from their redoubtable opponents at the end of the 90 minutes.

So what did we learn from the encounter in South Lanarkshire at the weekend? Could Brian Rice’s side have picked up a point for their efforts? And how are Neil Lennon’s team looking going into their opening Europa League group game against Rennes in France on Thursday night?


This was far from the treble treble winners’ best display of the season. Their inability to build on their early lead meant they endured some anxious moments towards the end of the game as their hosts pushed upfield for an equaliser. But sometimes during the course of a long league campaign picking up three points is all that really matters for the champions. Saturday was one of those occasions. There is no cause for alarm.

Far from it. The win means the Parkhead club go into their opening Group E game at Roazhon Park on Thursday evening on the back of a six game winning run.

“It sets us up perfectly,” said Lennon. “They’re a good side, Rennes. I’ve watched them two or three times. We’re in for a tough night, but it should be a very good game of football and it’s one we’re really looking forward to. The players have earned the right to be there.”

Starting their section with a win or even a draw against rivals who beat Paris Saint-Germain, Edinson Cavani, Angel Di Maria, Kylian Mbappe, Thiago Silva, Marco Veratti et al, at home in Ligue 1 last month will be far from easy for Celtic. But they are playing with confidence in defence, midfield and attack and can, if they perform at their best at the back and take their chances up front when they come, get the result they hope for.


The Norwegian winger, who arrived at Celtic on a season-long loan deal from Southampton at the end of last month, did well to set up Forrest for the only goal of the game just four minutes into his debut. But that was far from his only involvement. He impressed with his all-round contribution before being replaced midway through the second-half.

The 25-year-old was playing in his first competitive match of the 2019/20 campaign, but his movement was intelligent, his technique excellent, his passing precise and his work rate admirable. The player, who was signed from Basel for a £16 million transfer fee last year, will only improve and become more influential with games.

Mikey Johnston is set to be sidelined for another week to 10 days with a groin strain. But in Elyounoussi his manager has a more than capable stand-in. He can pitch him into the Rennes game and be confident he can do a decent job for his side.

“He hasn’t had a lot of football recently, but he looked fit and fresh, the good player we thought he was going to be,” said Lennon. “Obviously as we go on we’re hoping he’s going to improve.”


The return of the Australian playmaker, who has been sidelined since the William Hill Scottish Cup final against Hearts back in May with knee and ankle problems, was applauded loudly by the away support when he replaced Elyounoussi in the second-half. With good reason. Having such a quality player involved once again will increase the options available to Lennon and enable Celtic to cope with the punishing run of fixtures they have coming up both at home and abroad.


Many of the best young players to emerge from Scottish football in recent years, including Eamonn Brophy, Mikey Devlin, Greg Docherty, Lewis Ferguson, James McArthur and James McCarthy, have come through the youth ranks at Hamilton. Lewis Smith looks set to follow in their footsteps.

The 19-year-old, fresh from making his debut for the Scotland Under-21 side against San Marino, coped with the biggest test of his fledgling professional career admirably and was a deserved recipient of the Man of the Match award at the end of the 90 minutes.

Smith’s manager Brian Rice has worked with Scott Arfield at Falkirk and Ryan Christie at Inverness Caledonian Thistle in the past and believes his latest protege has the potential to scale the same heights as the Celtic and Rangers players in the future if he continues to apply himself. It was easy to see why on the evidence of this mature performance.


Installing an artificial surface makes a lot of sense for clubs like Hamilton, Livingston and Kilmarnock given the constant struggle they face to break even in this difficult financial climate. They can save money on ground staff and also reduce the risk of postponements by putting in an astroturf pitch. But what is their long-term cost to the game in Scotland?

This match at the Fountain of Youth Stadium was broadcast live across the United Kingdom by BT Sport. It was hardly an outstanding advertisement for football in this country which is going to tempt potential sponsors to plough in much-needed funds or lure more supporters through the turnstiles. In fact, it was dreadful fare. The conditions underfoot were a large contributory factor.

Brendan Rodgers was scathing about plastic pitches during his time in charge at Celtic and at one point called on the SFA, SPFL and even the Scottish government to take action and ban them. He had a definite point.

Games on grass are a far more entertaining spectacles and do much more to showcase the sport here.