CHRIS SUTTON insists Celtic are NOT as strong as they were at the completion of their treble-winning season.

And the one-time Hoops goal hero is concerned about the ongoing Reo Hatate situation that saw the Japanese international midfielder missing from Brendan Rodgers’ starting line-up for the Premiership opener against Ross County a week ago.

The fans’ favourite, who has been outstanding since arriving in January 2022, was on the substitutes’ bench as his direct replacement, David Turnbull, scored a double in his first start in nine months as the champions got off to a winning start with a 4-2 scoreline.

Hatate eventually joined the party in the 67th minute as a replacement for the Scotland international who has impressed the returning gaffer in pre-season outings.

HANDS UP…David Turnbull celebrates his second goal in Celtic’s 4-2 win over Ross County.

Matt O’Riley also got the nod to take his place at kick-off against Malky Mackay’s Highlanders and performed superbly while thumping in a memorable final goal to cap a convincing display in which he also set up Turnbull’s second goal with a mesmerising run to the left bye-line and a deft cross to the far post.

However, Sutton reckons neither the £2.75million purchase from Motherwell in June 2020 nor the London-born former Danish Under-21 playmaker being a better option than the Japanese ace at the top of his game.

The ex-England international forward said: “Reo Hatate was my Player of the Year as Celtic scorched to the treble.

“I’m fairly sure there are a number of supporters who would have agreed with that vote. Hatate was electric, he was dynamic, he was thrilling and, most importantly, he had a huge influence on the team.

“So the simple question is: What has gone wrong? Or what is going on?

“Hatate being left out of the side for the opening day of the season and the subsequent comments on the situation from Brendan Rogers tell me something’s not right.

THE LIFE O’RILEY…midfielder Matt celebrates his goal in the opening-day triumph over the Dingwall outfit.

“Let’s get one thing straight. Rodgers knows a player all right. He’s not reached his levels in management by not being able to see talent.

“Hatate clearly has it so whatever reason, it’s not being shown. Of course, Rodgers might simply not think he’s as good as David Turnbull or Matt O’Riley. Fair enough if that’s the case. It’s a manager’s prerogative to decide who he likes and who he doesn’t.

“But I cannot honestly believe that, if the Japanese was showing in training what he has shown on the park for the previous 18 months, he wouldn’t be starting. So, that leads me to believe there can only be a couple of things at play.

“Either something is simmering in the background as regards a transfer which is swirling around in his head and diverting his focus. And I wouldn’t be surprised if there are teams in bigger leagues having a close look in this transfer window.

“Or he’s simply not delivering on the training pitch for another reason.

“Whatever it is, it can’t be of assistance to have one of your top players not firing and you cannot tell me Hatate is not within Celtic’s top bracket of stars.”

LOOKING FOR TREBLE…Reo Hatate holds aloft the Scottish Cup after Celtic’s silverware hat-trick.

Sutton, speaking to the Daily Record, continued: “None of this is to take anything away from Turnbull and O’Riley.

“Both have clearly performed through the pre-season for the manager and shown the skills and application.

“O’Riley has always been in the thick of it. He played virtually every game for Ange Postecoglou last season and his adaptability and versatility is impressive.

“The Dane has plenty of attributes and, if there was one criticism, it was that he should have been scoring more goals. O’Riley set about rectifying that with a goal on the opening day and it was interesting to hear him say he was working in a slightly different role.

“Turnbull’s situation is fascinating. He was out of the Postecoglou picture and looked to be heading out of the door.

“There’s no question he has talents. That’s clear. But it’s consistency and the ability to influence big matches which are the key.

“Turnbull has not been able thus far during his career since joining from Motherwell, but Rodgers has a track record of improving players and this might be the beginning of another impressive burst.

“Nonetheless, I still can’t see Turnbull or O’Riley being a better option than a fully-firing Hatate and that’s where it becomes unclear.”

Sutton, Martin O’Neill’s first signing for the Hoops when he recruited him from Chelsea at £6million in the summer of 2000, added: “It needs to be resolved.

“Either Hatate snaps out of what is holding him back and starts producing for Rodgers or he leaves and the manager gets to add someone who is going to be up to the levels he is seeking.

UP, UP AND AWAY…Reo Hatate takes to the air to clear from Hearts’ Cammy Devlin. Daizen Maeda looks on.

“Hopefully for Celtic, it’s the former because big players are departing. I said at the end of last season that there were six players they had to try to keep for the Champions League. One was Jota. Gone. One was Carl Starfelt. Gone. One was Hatate.

“I have no doubt that Rodgers has a list of top players waiting to arrive because, with the greatest of respect, although signings have been made, I’m not seeing guaranteed make-the-team-better-immediately arrivals amongst that first batch, even if some have shown nice glimpses.

“Maik Nawrocki looked decent against Ross County, Odin Thiago Holm is catching the eye and Yang Hyun-Jun looks direct and with potential.

“It feels to me as if Celtic are going to have to almost patch their way through August until they get their squad filled at the close of the transfer window. Cameron Carter-Vickers and Anthony Ralston are feeling their way back from injuries and now Oh Hyeon-gyu is out for six weeks.

“Frankly, right now, Celtic are not as strong as they were at the end of last season.

“It’ll be a case of getting the job done and they at least have the luxury of easing their way into the season without the stress of Euro qualifiers.”

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