After an enthralling climax to last year’s Scottish Premier League, which saw elder statesmen Walter Smith’s Rangers side take the title over newcomer Neil Lennon’s Celtic by just a solitary point, hopes were high that this year would also be a season to remember for the Old Firm.
Lennon is in his
first full seasonsecond season as the manager at Parkhead, and long-time assistant Ally McCoist has finally taken over for Smith at the Govan club. Celtic ended the season claiming the Scottish Cup, regaining some pride after losing the League Cup final to the Gers earlier in the season.
But after ten matches, it is at Ibrox where a nine point advantage at the top of the table lies, with Celtic ten points back in third, a point behind second-placed Motherwell.
The failure by both clubs to advance into the Europa League group stages was seen as a terrible failure for Scottish football, especially when accompanied with the failures of other Scottish sides, like Hearts, in Europe this year.
But Celtic’s play-off round opponent, FC Sion of Switzerland, were found to have used ineligible players, and the Hoops took their place in the group stages. And while early results have been relatively positive for the Bhoys- a hard fought 2-0 loss to Atletico in Madrid, and a creditable 1-1 draw with Italian outfit Udinese in Glasgow, the worry is that Lennon’s squad will not be deep enough to cope with the extra fixtures.
McCoist, whose side fell in the play-off round to NK Maribor of Slovenia, has solely the domestic competitions to focus on, without the lure of European football.
While Celtic are generally regarded by neutrals as having the better squad and playing the more attractive brand of football, it is Rangers who have the knack for grinding out results when it counts, and this trait has put them in ideal position to repeat as champions.
Rangers have taken 28 out of a possible 30 points, while Celtic (with a match in hand) have taken 18 from 27, including three losses. For Rangers, experienced hands like Allan McGregor, David Weir, Sasa Papac, and Steven Davis have provided the steel and determination, while newer members like Nikica Jelavic and Kyle Bartley have added a touch of class.
Croatian international Jelavic has attracted interest from some sides south of the border, and with their rumoured financial difficulties owner Craig Whyte may be forced to sell him in January. But a large bid from Leicester City was turned down by the club, which could yet provide hope for their situation with HM Revenue Commission.
Since Lennon’s arrival, Celtic’s style of play has been a joy to watch, both tactically and in attitude. Lennon has restored pride in the jersey, and brought in a number of players who have become fan favourites almost immediately due to the committment they have shown.
Beram Kayal, Kris Commons, Cha Du-Ri, and Gary Hooper, among others, have all impressed since arriving in Glasgow, and were the core of a side that almost took back the title last year. Emilio Izaguirre’s loss to injury has perhaps been the most crippling blow to Celtic’s challenge, with the Honduran left-back greatly missed in the team.
Izaguirre was bought from CD Motagua in his native country last summer, and his first season in Scotland was one for the books. Drawing praise from a wide range of supporters and media personalities alike, Izaguirre won a host of awards, including the Scottish Football Writers’ Player of the Year, Scottish Players’ Association Player of the Year, and all of Celtic’s senior awards given out by the club and fans.
His broken ankle suffered on the opening day against Hibs means he will be out until Christmas at the earliest, and his presence has been sorely missed.
Having taken the first Old Firm derby with a comeback 4-2 win, it surely seems that Rangers are in the driving seat for keeping the trophy away from their city rivals.
The January transfer window will be crucial for both clubs, and Celtic’s potential progress in Europe could be a positive or a negative, depending on how one sees it. But as have seen in recent season, the Old Firm rarely fail to disappoint, and the top of the SPL table will surely be worth watching in the coming months.