Celtic ready for SPL title battle with Smith's Gers
GLASGOW, Aug 2 (Reuters) - Celtic manager Gordon Strachan faces his toughest Scottish Premier League campaign yet with the return of Walter Smith to his spiritual home at Rangers.
Strachan won a league and cup double last season but Smith has now taken the Ibrox reins after Frenchman Paul Le Guen's dreadful six-month spell and promises a fight for silverware.
There were already signs that Rangers were ready to mount a serious title challenge when they secured the second Champions League slot under Smith's tutelage last term.
Celtic secured their 41st title by a margin of 12 points but even their faithful support grew restless in the closing stages of the campaign as they stumbled over the finishing line after having enjoyed a 17-point advantage in January.
Both Glasgow clubs launched summer spending sprees but Celtic seem to have made the most pivotal signing in Hibernian and Scotland midfielder Scott Brown for a record fee between Scottish clubs of £4.4 million ($8.94 million).
Rangers were in the hunt until chairman David Murray baulked at the wages on offer from Celtic and Brown could turn out to be the difference between the teams this season.
This is going to be an important term for Brown and Rangers' decision to pull out of the move for him could prove costly as Strachan homes in on a third successive championship.
That feat was last achieved at Celtic by Jock Stein during the famous nine-in-a-row run of titles up to 1974.
Smith will prove the perfect foe after his previous spell at Rangers who he led to a ninth title in succession in 1997.
As national team manager he had already restored Scotland's fortunes with impressive results, notably a 1-0 Euro 2008 home win over World Cup finalists France in October.
But the lure of Rangers was too much and, after quitting the Scotland post in January, Smith has already brought a new confidence to the club.
Hearts were also expected to mount a challenge for the title last season but the club imploded following a succession of managerial changes throughout the season.
Lithuanian Valdas Ivanauskas quit as manager in March and was replaced by the duo of assistant Stephen Frail and Anatoly Korobochka who remain as caretakers.
Frail has installed a new team spirit and said: "It would be remiss of me to... say we will just try to push for third, we don't want to settle for that."
However, it's unlikely the Old Firm of Rangers and Celtic will be split this season with the latter's summer signings giving them the edge to win another title.