Rangers will lose SPL to cash-rich Celtic
Can Rangers limited and sensible football beat Celtic's cash rich squad to the SPL title? Not likely, says our new columnist Ronnie Esplin.
By Ronnie Esplin,
Those who hoped for a challenge to the Old Firm's duopoly of Scottish football this season will take little encouragement from the opening day of the 2009/10 SPL campaign.
At the lunchtime kick-off at Pittodrie on Saturday, Celtic were so far ahead of abysmal Aberdeen at the interval that Dons's shell-shocked boss Mark McGhee needed binoculars. An Aiden McGeady double and the customary strike from Scott McDonald just before half-time had the points secured before the team sheets were in at the other grounds around the country.
In the end it was a remarkably easy 3-1 victory for Tony Mowbray's men. Rangers unfurled the championship flag at Ibrox and then put in the type of patchy performance against Falkirk which season-ticket holders have become used to in recent years. However, ominously for the rest of the provincial clubs, Walter Smith's side still managed to dismiss the visitors by a healthy 4-1 margin.
Of course, opening day results should not be used as the sole indicator of what lies ahead but there are no prizes for predicting that the Old Firm will again go head-to-head again for the title.
So who is going to win it this season?
The most obvious and immediate change at Celtic Park since the departure of Gordon Strachan is that Mowbray appears to have unshackled the Hoops' players who, at times, appeared constricted if now cowed under their former boss.
The former Hibs and West Brom boss has Celtic playing at a higher tempo, with fluidity and movement, almost no emphasis on the long ball and with Aiden McGeady and Shaun Maloney being used to good effect on the flanks.
Mowbray clearly does not buy in to the popular belief that these two players cannot play in the same side.
Early indications are that left-back Danny Fox, signed from Coventry, is an improvement on the much-maligned Lee Naylor while the Hoops' management team have managed to breathe life in to Italian midfielder Massimo Donati and there will be mobility and power in the midfield with Landry N'Guemo and Scott Brown.
Striker Marc-Antoine Fortune is the only fly in the Mowbray ointment so far, the former Nancy striker is yet to get among the goals following his £3.8million move from the French club, but McDonald will compensate.
Watch out for Celtic running up some high scores this season although perhaps there remain some defensive weaknesses. The lack of height and power in the midfield, occasional lack of cover for the full-backs and the absence of pace through the centre of defence is there to be exploited although that is more likely to happen in Europe than in the SPL.
While Mowbray already seems fairly settled in how his side will play, question marks remain at Ibrox where it appears Walter Smith has begun another season in search of his ideal first eleven. Many Rangers fans don't like to be reminded that they have the same squad as last year although the return of Kevin Thomson to full fitness, we are told, will be like the signing of a new player.
That David Weir is still a mainstay in the Ibrox defence at the age of 39 says all you need to know about the cash-strapped Ibrox club these days and Light Blues fans are entitled to break out in a cold sweat at the thought of losing his partner Madjid Bougherra.
Allan McGregor is a top goalkeeper, Neil Alexander an able deputy and there is creativity in players such as Steven Davis and Pedro Mendes.
But what about the left-midfield position? Is Kyle Lafferty to be shoe-horned on to the touchline again or will Smith rotate his squad, giving players like Fleck, Miller, Naismith, Whittaker, Novo and McCulloch a spell on the end of the favoured, big diagonal punt.
It is perhaps how Smith utilises the enigmatic but prolific Kris Boyd which will be pivotal to Rangers' hopes of retaining their title.
Boyd is still to be worked out. He is not thought good enough to lead a one-man attack in a 4-5-1 system which could see him again sitting on the bench for European games and trips to Celtic Park.
However, his goals will again be vital if Rangers are to emulate or better the domestic double of last season.
Having said all that, there is little between the respective Old Firm squads.
Without wishing to reinforce stereotypes, Rangers' obstinacy is a match for Celtic's flair. It must not be forgotten how Rangers came through in the SPL run-in last season to wrest the title back from Celtic Park. Walter Smith has a knack of getting results when it matters.
But let me tell you why Celtic will win the league. Parkhead chief executive Peter Lawwell was criticised by many Hoops' fans for not strengthening the squad in January, the perception being that the addition of a striker in particular, would have guaranteed the club's fourth SPL title in succession. That will not happen again.
Financial results released from Celtic Park last week were encouraging and Lawwell claimed, with no little glee, that the possibility of new signings should not be ruled out. Rangers, remember, are skint.
Mowbray will probably add to his squad before the transfer window closes and that will give him the edge over Smith. But if help is needed in January then this time the Celtic boss will not be denied and that may just make the difference.