Rangers aim to stop the rot
© AFP

At the end of last season, Rangers fans must have wondered if the football gods could be any crueller. Now they know: the heartbreaking conclusion to their European and domestic campaign was only a glimpse of the beautiful game's vindictive side.

Losing the UEFA Cup amid much-publicised disturbances in Manchester was bad enough; conceding a potential 12-point advantage to surrender the league title to Celtic on a dramatic final day was considerably worse. However, no Rangers fans, not even in the worst nightmares, would have suspected that their first competitive outing of the season would end in UEFA Champions League elimination by Kaunas of Lithuania, nor that it would be followed swiftly by the sale of their Player of the Year.

For many within the Ibrox support, Carlos Cuellar's departure to Aston Villa - a ten-million-euro escape clause having been invoked - was the last straw. Yet while protests before tomorrow's game against Hearts are now considered inevitable, this mini-revolt is likely to prove merely a sign of things to come should Walter Smith's side fail to prevent their great rivals clinching a fourth successive title.

The champions
Celtic's dominance this decade can be best summed up by the fact that they have won six of the last eight Premier League titles, and lost the other two only on goal difference. Few expect this stranglehold to be relinquished this season, with Rangers' woes and the lack of a credible challenge from outside Glasgow leaving Gordon Strachan odds-on to become the only Celtic manager other than Jock Stein to win the league championship four seasons running.

Strachan's side are certainly considered to possess more guile and craft than their Old Firm rivals, with wingers Aiden McGeady and Shunsuke Nakamura key to their continued success. The little-and-large partnership of Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink and Scott McDonald also provide a dependable source of goals, while Artur Boruc - argued to be the greatest goalkeeper in the club's history - has been retained despite capturing the continent's attention at UEFA EURO 2008. Strachan has also bolstered his squad with the signings of Marc Crosas and Pat McCourt from Barcelona and Derry City respectively, while Greek striker Giorgios Samaras' loan deal has been made permanent.

The Bhoys were distinctly uninspiring in the first match of their Premier League defence, however, requiring a disputed penalty to overcome St Mirren, and Strachan has struggled in the past to combine a sustained challenge in the Champions League with consistency in the domestic arena.

The challengers
For both halves of the Old Firm, finishing second is equivalent to finishing last, and Rangers can ill afford another season of failure. Nevertheless, there are plenty within Ibrox who are quick to point out just how close Walter Smith took the club to one of the greatest seasons in its history last time around, and who insist that the Kaunas defeat - however disastrous - has papered over the progress made since Paul Le Guen's departure.

While there has been talk of clubs such as Dundee United and Aberdeen 'splitting' the Old Firm this season, as Hearts managed three years ago, it remains highly unlikely that the vastly experienced Smith will allow that to happen at Rangers' expense. More probable is that the club's lack of European football will focus the minds of everyone at Ibrox on dethroning a Celtic side that, for all their recent dominance, remain far from infallible.

Smith has certainly bolstered his frontline during the summer, recruiting Kyle Lafferty, Kenny Miller and Andrius Velicka for a combined £6 million, and the arrival of Algerian international centre-half Madjid Bougherra is likely to plug the gap left by Cuellar's departure. With captain Barry Ferguson out until November, however, the Ibrox club badly need an injection of creativity into their midfield, and while yesterday's addition of highly-rated Valencia youngster Aaron Niguez Esclapez will go some way towards providing that, suggestions are that more money will be spent on this key area before the transfer window slams shut.

The outsiders
Dundee United, revived under the astute stewardship of Craig Levein, impressed everyone last season and were roundly tipped to offer the most credible challenge to the Old Firm this time around. Despite some seemingly shrewd moves in the transfer market, however, Levein's side did lose last season's top scorer Noel Hunt to Reading, and their season got off to the worst possible start on Monday with a 3-1 defeat by newly-promoted Hamilton Academical.

Hibernian, meanwhile, appear to have paid the price for dismantling the young, talented and exciting team that looked capable of great things under Tony Mowbray and John Collins, with new manager Mixu Paatelainen already under pressure after going down to Kilmarnock in the club's first game of the season. As for Edinburgh rivals Hearts, the days of lavish spending, wild promises and an unlikely title challenge in the early days of Vladimir Romanov's reign appear to be over, although with former Uganda coach Csaba Laszlo having made a positive first impression, another season outside the top six seems equally improbable.

Biggest movers
Youngsters they may be, but the arrivals of Spaniards Marc Crosas and Aaron Niguez Esclapez from Barcelona and Valencia respectively have been among the more eye-catching in Scotland this summer. Crosas, 20, had grown tired of life as Xavi's understudy at Camp Nou and after spending last season on loan at Lyon, successfully persuaded the reluctant Catalan club to facilitate his move to Celtic, albeit with Barça retaining a buy-back option. Esclapez, meanwhile, has arrived at Rangers on a two-year loan from the Mestalla, the 19-year-old carrying rave reviews for his performances with Spain's U-20 and U-17 sides.

Players to watch
At 22, Aiden McGeady has already eclipsed Shunsuke Nakamura as Scottish football's entertainer supreme. Voted last season's Player and Young Player of the Year by his peers, the Republic of Ireland winger gave Celtic the perfect pre-season boost when he signed a new five-year contract, quashing continued speculation linking him with a move south of the border. Scott Brown, meanwhile, enjoyed a disappointing debut campaign at Celtic Park last season, but the £4.3 million signing from Hibernian possesses enough passion, drive and panache to suggest that he could yet prove a pivotal figure in the Bhoys' bid for four-in-a-row. At Ibrox, Kyle Lafferty's £3.5 million price-tag will ensure that his every move is closely watched, while the beleaguered Rangers support are hoping that Esclapez displays the potential that saw him tipped as a future Spanish international.

Have your say
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