THE dream debut season that Ange Postecoglou enjoyed as Celtic manager left the Greek-Australian facing something of a quandry.

How did he top it this term?

The 2021/22 campaign had by no means been perfect. His first forays into Europe, for example, had been a bit of a disappointment. The team he had hastily assembled after arriving in this country had exited the Champions League, Europa League and Conference League. So there were definite improvements to be made on the continent.

The Scottish Cup, too, had ended in bitter disappointment and a painful extra-time defeat to Rangers at Hampden in the semi-final that had scuppered hopes of completing a fifth domestic treble in six years.

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However, the League Cup had been a resounding success; Hearts, Raith Rovers, St Johnstone and Hibernian had all been overcome and the trophy reclaimed.

In the cinch Premiership, too, Celtic had put erratic early season form firmly behind them, gone on a 32 game unbeaten run, leapfrogged their city rivals in the table following the winter break and been crowned champions with a match to spare.

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The scenes of joy inside Parkhead as Callum McGregor was presented with the league silverware following a 6-0 rout of Motherwell in May were a far cry from those which had preceded them 12 months earlier.

Fans had revolted as the bid to make Scottish football history and do 10-In-A-Row had ended in spectacular fashion amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Postecoglou, a leftfield choice to replace Neil Lennon as manager and then some, had firmly embraced the job ahead of him, had signed good footballers, had got his side playing attractive and entertaining football and had lifted supporters who were demoralised, disillusioned and despondent after their annus horribilis.

But improving on all that was always going to take some doing. Could he build on the remarkable progress that he had made when the champions launched the defence of their trophy? Could he make his charges even more of a dominant force? Could he keep the fans happy?

Musical artists who suddenly shoot to fame with their debut release face a phenomenon that is known as Difficult Second Album Syndrome. Ange, as he became affectionately known by adoring supporters, had certainly been a smash hit after he arrived on these shores. But remaining No 1 would be a challenge and no mistake.

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Rangers, who had reached the Europa League final in Seville and lifted the Scottish Cup under former Champions League winner and World Cup finalist Giovanni van Bronckhorst, were widely expected to strengthen significantly in the summer and present their age-old adversaries with far more of a challenge.

If anything, though, Postecoglou has made even more of an impact on the Scottish game this season than he did in his first.

Celtic, who retained their Scottish title today when they defeated Hearts 2-0 at Tynecastle, have already, with four fixtures outstanding, won more games than they did last time around and are firmly on course to score more goals.

His place in the affections of those who cheer on his charges on from the stands has increased further. Goodness knows what the reaction will be if Inverness Caledonian Thistle are beaten in the Scottish Cup final at Hampden next month and a clean sweep of silverware is secured for the fifth time in seven years.

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So how has he pulled off what seemed like a tall order if not an impossible task? Good coaching, sound tactics and astute man management have all played a part. But more shrewd recruitment has underpinned his efforts.

There was not the mass influx of players that there had been after he arrived from Yokohama F Marinos. There was no need. He very much went for quality over quantity. Most of his budget was spent on two players – centre half Cameron Carter-Vickers and winger Jota.

Yet, the outlay of over £12m on that duo, who spent last season in the East End of Glasgow on loan from Spurs and Benfica respectively, has proved to be money very well spent indeed. Carter-Vickers has gone from strength to strength and while Jota has set up chances and scored himself on numerous occasions up front.

The capture of Aaron Mooy from Shanghai Port on a free transfer did not make the same sort of headlines. But the Australian internationalist has enjoyed some absolutely outstanding spells both at home and abroad. When fit and on form, he is an automatic selection in midfield alongside Reo Hatate and McGregor.

The new recruits who arrived halfway through the campaign have proved every bit as important, not least right back Alistair Johnston. Defender Yuki Kobayashi, midfielder Tomoki Iwata and striker Oh Hyeon-gyu have all shown glimpses of what they can offer in the appearances they have made this year. However, Johnston has been nothing short of a revelation.

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The departure of Josip Juranovic for Union Berlin in Germany after the World Cup final in Qatar, a tournament he helped Croatia to finish third in, could have been catastrophic. But his replacement, who featured for Canada in the Middle East, came in, made an assured debut in the 2-2 draw with Rangers at Ibrox in January and went from strength to strength thereafter.

In the aftermath of Celtic’s hard-fought 1-0 win over their age-old adversaries in the Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden earlier this month, Postecoglou was at pains to point out that “I’m no one man band”. Too true. The recruitment and scouting staff who beaver away behind the scenes must take their share of credit for what has been accomplished in the past nine-and-a-half months. 

But it was one of Postecoglou’s first signings who has been the undoubted star of the show. Kyogo Furuhashi, a £4.6m capture from Vissel Kobe in his native Japan, spent long periods of last season on the sidelines injured. His fitness has not been an issue during his second term in Scotland.

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When the 28-year-old netted a first-half hat-trick in a record-breaking 9-0 win over Dundee United at Tannadice in August – it was the highest away win in the Premiership era – he issued a warning which must have struck fear into his team’s opponents. “We certainly had more opportunities,” he said. “We need to improve our finishing quality.”

There has been nothing wrong with his ruthlessness up front. He is, with 30 goals to his name in all competitions, the leading marksman in the land by a distance and a strong contender to scoop the various Player of the Year awards which will be handed out soon. But he, too, is no one man band. No fewer than 20 of his fellow squad members have got their names on the scoresheet too.

When Giorgos Giakoumakis, the Greek striker who had grown frustrated at his lack of first team opportunities exited for MLS franchise Atlanta United in a £4.3m transfer in February it was never going to cause Postecoglou any sleepless nights.

Celtic have suffered just one reverse since they launched their defence of the Premiership with a 2-0 win over Aberdeen at home on July 31 – a 2-0 loss to St Mirren in Paisley back in September that prevented from going 365 days without a league loss.

A few first team regulars – Carter-Vickers, Carl Starfelt, Juranovic, Hatate and Jota – were absent from the starting line-up that day in the wake of a draining Champions League group game against Shakhtar Donetsk of Ukraine in Poland. But the defending champions certainly responded well. They have not been beaten since on the home front.

Crucially, they have not lost in three encounters with Rangers, who replaced Van Bronckhorst with Michael Beale back in November after a dire run of form ended their chances to finishing first, in the Premiership and have increased the size of their lead over the only team capable of challenging them. They have a superior standard of footballer and far greater strength in depth.

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The one-sided title race has led to inevitable questions being asked by fans and pundits. Have they outgrown Scottish football? Should they move down to England or join a breakaway European super league? They are back-handed compliments in a way.

Handling the constant pressure and high expectations of their legions of supporters is demanding. There is, as has been seen across the River Clyde in Govan in recent months, no margin for error. Campaigns can unravel with just one or two below par showings. Nothing should be taken away from the newly-crowned champions for what they have achieved.   

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Can Ange Postecoglou, the Greek-Australian with the weird name who few had heard of and whose appointment many ridiculed, take Celtic to a higher level in the 2023/24 season? It will be a big ask. But do not bet against it.

He will be keen to strengthen in certain areas, make greater inroads into the Champions League, stave off Rangers once again, secure a hat-trick of Premiership wins and defend every trophy which his team has lifted.