Strachan's Celtic defy doubters
Last year may have witnessed Gordon Strachan succeed in returning the Scottish title to Celtic Park in his debut season as manager , but the current Premier League campaign began with few observers tipping his side to cling on to their prize.
With John Hartson offloaded and Roy Keane forced into retirement by injury, Strachan's side certainly began season 2006/07 bereft of two of their most experienced and influential players, and with the nation's journalists in almost universal agreement that the championship was heading elsewhere. After all, to the east lay an ambitious Hearts side who had recently beaten Rangers to Scotland's second UEFA Champions League slot, while across the city, the fanfare that greeted Paul Le Guen's arrival at Ibrox had been followed by the recruitment of no fewer than 12 new players.
Yet, for all these misgivings, Celtic ultimately clinched their 41st league title with a degree of ease, crossing the finishing line with four games to spare, and with a Scottish Cup final still to come that could yield the fourth trophy of Strachan's reign. The Bhoys also made history by advancing to the last 16 of the Champions League for the first time, beating Manchester United, Benfica and FC Copenhagen en route to a Kaka-inspired extra time defeat in the San Siro.
Not everything Strachan has touched has turned to gold - high-profile signings Thomas Gravesen and Jiri Jarosik have disappointed - but a close-knit spirit has been forged, and late goals in hard-fought wins have become his youthful team's hallmark as a consequence. As right-back Mark Wilson explains: "This dressing room has a lot of young boys and a lot of Scottish boys and we all get on brilliantly. I don't think that kind of thing should be underestimated at a football club."
Nor should shrewd acquisitions such as Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink, an expert leader of the line, and Lee Naylor, whose impact at left-back has been such that he found himself nominated for Scotland's Players' Player of the Year award alongside two team-mates, both fellow Strachan signings. One was Artur Boruc, the agile and commanding Polish No1, while the other - the award's eventual winner - was Shunsuke Nakamura .
Strachan hails 'genius' Nakamura
The Japanese midfielder is undoubtedly the jewel in Celtic's crown. Manchester United's Edwin van der Sar was beaten by his free-kicks home and away in the Champions League, and it seemed entirely fitting that it should be yet another Nakamura set piece special that clinched Celtic the title in injury time at Kilmarnock . "The man's a genius," Strachan said of a player he has described as possessing 'the touch of an angel'. "But we also have statistics that say he covers more ground than anybody in our team."
Rumours persist that Nakamura's Spanish suitors will return in the summer to tempt him away from his adoring public in the east end of Glasgow, but the player himself recently pledged that he will "definitely be at Celtic Park next season - hopefully to lift my third championship in a row". Strachan himself made a similar statement of intent after a return to the English Premiership was mooted, saying: "Where else would I go? I just love this club."
There will be, however, be fresh challenges to face if Strachan is to outwit his third Rangers counterpart in just two years. Finding a regular partner for Vennegoor of Hesselink will be one, but even more pressing is the need to identify a replacement for departing captain Neil Lennon , who has won ten major trophies during his six-and-a-half-year stay and will hope to make it 11 in his Celtic swansong: the Scottish Cup final
"I could spend £12m and still not guarantee that the person would have the same winning mentality as Neil," Strachan has said, acknowledging the void the 35-year-old will leave. "It's like Roy Keane moving on from Man United. You don't just try and replace that one player, you try and alter your team a little bit. Michael Carrick is not the same player as Roy, United changed their system. There's nobody out there that can replace Neil as a person and a player."
Smith starts sell-off
Yet if Strachan has some rebuilding to do, it is nothing compared to the revamp required of Walter Smith, who returned to find a Rangers squad hopelessly divided and patently short on the talent required to wrest back the title. His predecessor's departure might have been hastened by a fall-out with captain Barry Ferguson that created a schism between the club's Scottish and foreign players, but Le Guen's 12 signings had, almost to a man, proved disastrous.
Smith has certainly not been slow to nail his colours to the mast since taking charge, restoring Ferguson as skipper and beginning a sell-off of Le Guen's recruits that has already seen Jeremy Clement, Lee Martin, Lionel Letizi and Phil Bardsley depart Ibrox. There has also been a discernable note of caution struck around Ibrox following chairman David Murray's boast that Le Guen's arrival would bring a "moonbeam of success", with Smith diligently setting about steadying the ship in much the same way he did so successfully after succeeding Berti Vogts as Scotland coach.
In Edinburgh, meanwhile, chronic instability has left Hearts trailing in fourth place, with the club now on to its fifth coach in just two years, having lost Paul Hartley and captain Steven Pressley, both of whom were eagerly snapped up by Celtic. Across the city, Hibernian have played some truly sparkling football under John Collins, but that didn't stop the club's players leading a revolt against their rookie manager just a week after lifting the League Cup amid ecstatic scenes at Hampden.
Collins survived the mutiny, and is continuing to pursue his dream of 'total football' at Easter Road, but peace will need to break out on both sides of the capital if a genuine and sustained assault is to be mounted on the Old Firm's duopoly next season.