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Celtic strong favourites in SPL

By Clive Lindsay

Rangers' Walter Smith and Celtic's Gordon Strachan
Rangers' Smith and Celtic's Strachan face budget challenges

The Scottish Premier League is nearly always a two-horse race but this season kicks off with one of the main thoroughbreds being widely discounted.

Rangers reached the Uefa Cup final last season and only just missed out on the Scottish title on the final day.

But the Ibrox outfit followed a poor pre-season by crashing out of Europe on Tuesday to Lithuanian minnows Kaunas.

And, with their Glasgow rivals in disarray, Celtic are hot favourites to make it four titles in a row.

Their position of strength has been earned somewhat by default, however, and they have not exactly set the heather alight during pre-season themselves.

The chants for Walter Smith to resign that reverberated around Glasgow's south side on Tuesday echoed those directed at Gordon Strachan down London Road-way before the late turnaround that allowed Celtic to retain their title last term.

Madjid Bougherra
Bougherra has joined Rangers from Charlton

Strachan has been quiet in the transfer market and been at pains to point out that he does not have the funds to match the big-spenders in England and other major leagues.

Georgios Samaras has simply made his loan move permanent, the acquisition of Derry City winger Pat McCourt is a gamble that might pay off, while Celtic could have unearthed a potential star via the pending arrival of Marc Crosas from Barcelona.

But the squad is largely the same as the one that found itself some distance behind Rangers last season until two admittedly fine Old Firm derby victories and their rivals' packed fixture list began to take its toll.

The summer break appears to have been too short for Rangers to shake off the hangover inspired by the double disappointment of missing out on the title and losing in the Uefa Cup final to Zenit St Petersburg.

Winning the Scottish Cup final against First Division Queen of the South appears to have been little consolation and players like Lee McCulloch have publicly admitted that they need to rouse themselves from a collective lethargy.

Whether out of design or, more likely, bad luck, Smith's transfer business has left him with a lop-sided squad, overloaded with strikers - including summer buys Kenny Miller, Andrius Velicka and Kyle Lafferty.

He has been unable to offload Daniel Cousin, Chris Boyd or Jean-Claude Darcheville, while Madjid Bougherra arrived too late to help their cause in Europe and efforts to re-sign Steve Davis after his successful loan from Fulham last season have stalled.

Combine Smith's inability to find a creative force for midfield with summer injuries to captain Barry Ferguson and the even more influential Carlos Cuellar and Rangers were left with a sizeable hole through their heart that Kaunas punctured with alarming ease.

Celtic recovered from a similar European debacle against Artmedia Bratislava three seasons ago to claim the first of their titles under Strachan, but Smith has to rebuild a squad without the benefit of millions of pounds that would have been available if they had qualified for the Champions League group stages.

Other clubs will be viewing this as their best chance in years to split the Old Firm at the top of the table and Dundee United appear to be most equipped for the challenge.

Celtic winger Pat McCourt
McCourt has been given the chance to impress by Celtic

They narrowly missed out on finishing third last season and manager Craig Levein appears to have made a shrewd acquisition in Francesco Sandaza, a striker unearthed from Valencia's B-team but who has impressed in pre-season despite being short of fitness.

Motherwell finished third against the odds last season to the benefit of Mark McGhee's reputation, but the manager is playing down their chances of a repeat exercise, saying Europe is their main focus.

The club he rebuffed during the summer, Hearts, could at last live up to owner Vladimir Romanov's lofty aspirations should former Uganda coach Czaba Lazslo's team impress on the field as much as he has done in the dressing-room and in the media.

On the other side of Edinburgh, Mixu Paatelainen is under pressure after a terrible pre-season and rumours of player unrest, while Aberdeen's fans will continue their love-hate relationship with Jimmy Calderwood.

Falkirk, with John Hughes' philosophy of playing passing football, appear the most likely of the others to challenge for a top-six place, while Kilmarnock, St Mirren and Inverness Caledonian Thistle will either improve or face another season in the lower half.

Whether any of them are dragged into a relegation battle will depend on how Hamilton Academical's young guns adapt to life in the top tier - and without their plastic pitch.

With talent like 17-year-old James McCarthy, for whom a bid by Liverpool has already been rejected, at their disposal, Billy Reid has created a team that has already shown they can compete with SPL sides in cup competitions.

Their aim now will be to avoid the kind of stage fright that last season led to Gretna becoming detached early on, almost inevitable relegation and eventual bankruptcy.
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