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Rae's say: A third force?

It takes two to tango as the old saying goes, but Scottish football is infinitely more enthralling when a third force emerges.

We've grown accustomed, particularly in recent seasons, to viewing the scrap for SPL supremacy as a two-way tussle between Celtic and Rangers. Nevertheless, the notion that 'three's a crowd' simply doesn't apply in the Scottish context. Not if you have the interests of a better rounded championship at heart.

At the start of the present campaign, there was meagre evidence that the old order of Old Firm dominance was about to be broken up and one can hardly make the case that there exists an immediate threat to the omnipotence of Celtic and Rangers.

Wednesday night though, provided the kind of nerve-jangling drama that suggests we Scots might just get more than we bargained for this term.

That third placed Aberdeen have made significant strides under the dynamic leadership of Jimmy Calderwood and Jimmy Nicholl is beyond contention.

Working with a squad relatively unchanged from last season, the two Jimmies, previously at the Dunfermline helm, quickly concluded that the existing Pittodrie squad contained more quality than they had originally believed. Beaten just once in their opening ten league games, Aberdeen fans had considerable cause to think they were on the way up, ahead of Wednesday eleventh round of action.

Still, little was expected of the Dons in Glasgow's East End the other night. How then, can one explain an astonishing 3-2 victory by the swashbuckling men in red, whose stoppage-time plundering secured maximum points?

First of all, Celtic are not the SPL untouchables they once were. Actually, to be fair, Celtic played decently and with no shortage of resolve against Aberdeen. In the post-Larsson era however, Martin O'Neill's men look more than a bit vulnerable.

By not adequately replenishing the squad during the summer, the Parkhead club have been left with an excessive number of plodders. Bobo Balde and Stan Varga can appear crude and cumbersome at the back while Juninho, signed from Middlesboro supposedly to add much needed inventiveness and creativity in midfield, has struggled to settle in.

Secondly, the promising young players on Celtic's books are not yet ready to call themselves first team regulars. Aiden McGeady, Craig Beattie and Ross Wallace need time to develop. Stephen Pearson is a player most of us felt would figure prominently this term, yet a mysterious malaise has enveloped the former Motherwell player's game.

Thirdly, there's the small matter of Aberdeen and self-belief. I remember sitting in the Parkhead main stand five years ago, watching Larsson and his teammates effortlessly knock seven goals past Ebbe Skovdahl's uptight charges. For years, Aberdeen players have been coming to Glasgow to play Celtic and Rangers with defeat etched on their faces even before kick-off.

Yes, the Dons were outplayed for long spells on Wednesday but the heads never dropped this time. What has occurred since the two Jimmies started working their managerial magic is a compelling advert for the benefits of sports psychology.

Celtic still look more robust and physically intimidating than their city rivals but Alex McLeish arguably has a bit more finesse at his disposal.

Just look at the impressive return to form of Russell Anderson, Kevin McNaughton and Phil McGuire this season, three players once touted as future Scotland stars and potential Premiership players. Confidence is a wonderful thing.

While the Celtic v Aberdeen thriller garnered most of the attention on Wednesday night, Rangers were toiling away on the unloved plastic pitch at Dunfermline. It says much for the fighting spirit of Alex McLeish's team that a deficit at the interval was adroitly overcome in the second half.

By recording a 2-1 margin of victory, Rangers (thanks to Aberdeen) have pulled to within four points of Celtic. The Ibrox club enjoy an advantage of only a couple of points over the Dons.

This is not an especially dazzling Rangers squad but it's by no means as bad as poor early season results indicated. Celtic still look more robust and physically intimidating than their city rivals but Alex McLeish arguably has a bit more finesse at his disposal.

Jean-Alain Boumsong has more to offer as a ball-playing defender than any of his Celtic counterparts, Fernando Ricksen has performed consistently in midfield and Nacho Novo is starting to find the back of the net.

Just when the knives seemed out for McLeish a few weeks ago, Rangers embarked on a run of seven competitive wins in-a-row, only to fail to make it eight on the spin by surrendering a last minute goal at home to Dundee United last weekend. That 1-1 draw has brought questions about the current side's pedigree back to the surface.

With a resurgent Aberdeen team due at Ibrox on Sunday, trying for their second Glasgow scalp in the space of four days, we'll no doubt learn more about the potential for a 'provincial' club to split the Old Firm this season.

The Dons deserve the many plaudits that have come their way (among them from Martin O'Neill) but are still a long way from being the finished article. Hibernian's band of youngsters have impressed too in Tony Mowbray's first season at Easter Road, but they too need time before a challenge can be sustained.

Celtic and Rangers, crippled by the parlous financial state of the Scottish game have regressed. The remaining SPL clubs, even if ever so slightly, are closing the gap. A more level playing field is what our league needs above all else.

As I see it, the two Glasgow clubs will still fight it out between themselves but I would be very surprised if Aberdeen, Hibs, Hearts and Motherwell don't inflict more damage on the big two than has been common place. This season, it won't just be the three remaining Old Firm games, that determine who wins the SPL.

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