Celtic are champions-elect

MEMBERS of the Professional Footballers' Association in Scotland are about to be balloted on their Player of the Year.

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Neil Lennon said last season that none of the Player of the Year nominees would get into his team but he later signed Leigh Griffiths
Neil Lennon said last season that none of the Player of the Year nominees would get into his team but he later signed Leigh Griffiths

Neil Lennon was particularly irked when no-one from Celtic made it on to the shortlist last season, despite being well on their way to a retaining the league title, securing a double, and having made it to the last 16 of the Champions League.

The Parkhead boss went as far as to say that none of the four who headed the voting - Leigh Griffiths, Andrew Shinnie, Niall McGinn and eventual winner, Michael Higdon - would get into his team.

That's something he may now have cause to reconsider, given that Griffiths is, of course, currently leading the line for the league champions.

PFA secretary, Fraser Wishart, explained plenty of votes had been cast for Celtic players, but that they had been so widely distributed none of them collected enough to make the shortlist.

Could history repeat itself this time around?

There is no doubt Celtic are, once again, throwing up a host of contenders who could divide the vote.

Kris Commons appeared to be running away with it in the first half of the season. But his form and strike rate have dropped off marginally just when the players are asked to cast their votes.

Virgil van Dijk has come through very strongly and is considered by many to be the classiest player operating in this country.

Fraser Forster - like Commons, a man who Lennon strongly believed should have been in the hunt for the award last year - has presented a very strong case with the shut-out record he set and the form he continues to show good enough to elevate him into the England squad.

Lennon would also insist that his skipper, Scott Brown, is not overlooked after what has been his most consistent season since he arrived at the club in 2007.

Of course, there will be champions of players operating at other clubs. But is there anyone who has truly done better over the course of the season than this quartet?

Once again, Lennon would be hard to convince.

With Griffiths lifting the Scottish Football Writers' award while Celtic were enjoying such a successful season last term, it is little wonder people around Parkhead will be monitoring this year's voting very carefully.

Perhaps an even more intriguing question this time around is who will be voted Manager of the Year?

Nothing is going to stop Lennon completing a hat-trick of league championships. But, while he was voted Manager of the Year for the second season in a row by the SFWA, his fellow-bosses went for Queen of the South's Allan Johnston as PFA Scotland's No.1.

So, can he be confident of winning the prize this year?

It's all up for grabs. And, like everyone else, Commons - a winner of just one Player of the Month award this term, for December - can only wait to see how the votes are cast.

But, he concedes the competition from within his own camp is strong, with Forster's form earning special praise from the attacking midfielder.

Commons said: "He's the best I have ever played with. He's phenomenal.

"Fraser can have the best part of 75 or 80 minutes without having a great deal to do, but he always seems to pull of a top, top save whenever he is needed.

"Not just his performances when he was setting his clean sheet record, but his Champions League performances have been outstanding."

So the battle of the Bhoys is on.

But personal plaudits are side issues. Winning another championship - as soon as possible - will be the real crowning glory for Commons.

The man who has banged in 24 goals in a glory season for the Hoops said: "Goalscoring-wise, this has been one of my best seasons.

"Hopefully, we can get the league wrapped up sooner rather than later and concentrate on what is going to be a difficult Champions League campaign next year."

Celtic need a maximum of 10 points to get over the line in a title race they have led comfortably from the early stages.

The fans - and broadcasters - are already indulging in the guessing game of when they will officially be crowned for the 45th time in the club's history, with the match against Partick Thistle on March 26, or against Ross County three days later deemed most likely to be coronation day.

However, with the shock of finally losing their unbeaten league record to Aberdeen still raw in their memories, Commons is not prepared to take anything for granted.

He was rested for the match against Inverness, in which Celtic bounced back from their Pittodrie blow with an emphatic 5-0 win, eventually coming off the bench to score the fourth that day.

Commons is determined to regain his starting spot for Friday's game against Kilmarnock, and to have a strong finish to the season.

It has been one of the toughest - but most rewarding - in the 30-year-old's career, starting, as it is did, way back in mid-July with their opening Champions League qualifier.

The matches against Cliftonville, Elfsborg and Shakhter Karagandy were all successfully negotiated.

But what followed in the group stage still leaves Commons feeling unfulfilled.

Given the loss of key players in the summer and the rebuilding job which Lennon has been forced to oversee, it was, on reflection, to be expected.

And Commons does his best to keep a sense of perspective. He explained: "Everyone knew it was kind of a luxury draw, to get Barcelona, AC Milan and Ajax in the one group.

"They labelled it the group of death, and it was going to be very, very difficult. We were probably trying to get third spot to get into the Europa League.

"But, those nights, you are hoping things go your way, everything clicks and you play well. But sometimes you just have to hold your hands up and say, listen, you are playing against some of the top players in the world.

"When you don't play to your absolute maximum, you do get punished. Unfortunately for us, we didn't turn up in the big games when it was required."

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