The Scottish Premier League resumes in prompt fashion this weekend, with reigning champions Rangers kicking off an early start to the season by hosting Heart of Midlothian on Saturday. Just 69 days after they earned their third consecutive championship, and their 54th in total, Ally McCoist’s side will begin another battle in their eternal struggle with city rivals Celtic.
McCoist himself is the significant change in the Glasgow landscape since the 2010/11 campaign, having been promoted from assistant manager to take overfrom Walter Smith, who retired in May after two spells in charge. The 48-year-old, a Rangers legend who holds the club's all-time goalscoring record, has served a length apprenticeship, and is now beginning to make his own mark on Rangers' squad.
In his final years at the helm, Smith was increasingly forced to work on a shoestring budget due to financial restrictions, but the arrival of new owner Craig Whyte earlier this year is finally beginning to provide McCoist with some buying power in the transfer market. Deals have already been completed for Hearts left-back Lee Wallace and Almeria midfielder Juan Manuel Ortiz, while a pre-contract has been agreed with USA midfielder Alejandro Bedoya.
Perhaps even more pleasing for McCoist and the Ibrox faithful is the news that several key players, including goalkeeper Allan McGregor, defender Steven Whittaker and Northern Ireland midfielder Steven Davis, have all signed contract extensions. “In all honesty, the three players have been part of the spine of the team that has been successful in recent seasons,” said McCoist. “It is going to cost you a fortune to replace them if you lose them, so I am genuinely thrilled the players have decided to stay and pledge themselves to the club for the long-term.”
Rangers have also submitted a £2 million bid to bring former player Carlos Cuellar back to Scotland, as they seek to enhance a squad which is likely to again depend on the goals of Nikica Jelavic and the power and athleticism of Madjid Bougherra.
As always, their strongest challenge is sure to come from across the city, where Celtic will be determined to end a run which has seen them fail to lift the title since 2008. A point behind Rangers when the league campaign concluded in May, Neil Lennon’s side did beat Motherwell 3-0 at Hampden Park a week later to win the Scottish Cup, the Irishman’s first trophy since becoming manager.
Lennon was awarded a new contract by the Celtic hierarchy this summer, signalling the board’s belief in a 40-year-old who endured with dignity several difficult off-field incidents in his first season in charge. Upon agreeing his new deal, Lennon made his ambitions clear: “We want to provide our fans with entertaining, attacking and professional football but ultimately we aim to deliver silverware.”
The Bhoys' squad has changed precious little in the transfer window thus far, with the purchase of Kenya international Victor Wanyama their only significant outlay. Crucially, however, Lennon has managed to keep hold of key players such as Emilio Izaguirre and Beram Kayal, who had been linked with moves away from Celtic Park after impressive debut seasons in 2010/11.
Rangers will be Scotland’s sole representative in the UEFA Champions League this year, with Celtic entering the UEFA Europa League alongside Hearts. Dundee United were also eligible for the qualifying rounds of the Europa League, but suffered an early exit against Slask Wroclaw last night on away goals. A recent improvement in Scotland’s UEFA coefficient means the new SPL season will have two qualifying spots available for the 2012/13 Champions League.
Dundee United, Hearts lead chasing pack
While the two Glasgow sides are expected to dominate once again, Hearts and Dundee United will hope to build on positive seasons to further reduce the gap to the big two. United have every reason to be optimistic, having managed to retain the services of top goalscorer David Goodwillie, while Hearts have strengthened an already sturdy squad with the likes of John Sutton and Mehdi Taouil.
After a disappointing ninth-place finish last time around, Aberdeen have made six summer signings and the minimum target willl be a return to the top six under former Scotland coach Craig Brown. Hibernian, who had an equally disappointing 2010/11 after finishing one place below the Dons, have re-signed former stars Ivan Sproule and Garry O’Connor in their bid to return to the league's elite.
St. Mirren have also raided England’s Championship, capturing well-travelled forward Steven Thompson and Scotland international Gary Teale. Dunfermline Athletic, meanwhile, are back in the top division after a four-year exile, and will have their sights set on survival.