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Scottish Premier League preview

Aberdeen - Hearts | Hibernian - St Mirren

 

It's been a case of 'in with the old and out with the new' over the summer in the SPL. A managerial merry-go-round came to a halt with a clutch of former players returning to familiar haunts, whilst a raft of talented young bloods have taken the well trodden path 'down the road' to ply their trade in England.

Mark McGhee and John Hughes have come back to take up the reins at Aberdeen and Hibs, but the major talking point of the summer has inevitably been the decision of ex-Bhoys defender Tony Mowbray to succeed Gordon Strachan in the Celtic hotseat. Mowbray's association with the Parkhead club, a zealot-like adherence to a neat passing style and - for some Celtic fans - the fact that he is not Strachan have made him a popular choice with the green half of Glasgow.

He has been backed with cash and Celtic are the only SPL side to have made a notable splash in the transfer market over the summer, the most prominent of these seeing Marc-Antoine Fortune quickly reunited with his old West Brom manager in a £3.7m deal.

The lumbering Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink has been swiftly discarded from the payroll as Mowbray seeks an injection of pace into his attack, whilst the moments of genius that Shunsuke Nakamura liberally sprinkled his Celtic career with have drifted over to La Liga and Espanyol.

Fortune's ex-Nancy team-mate Landry N'Guemo has also been snapped up on loan and the problematic left-back area has been addressed with the acquisition of Danny Fox and young defender Josh Thompson is the latest Mowbray recruit. Five goals in 17 games for West Brom last season places Fortune's acquisition in the risky category, but at least Mowbray has been dealt in to the transfer game. Over at Ibrox,

Rangers' parlous financial affairs have placed an embargo on new signings despite the automatic Champions League place and the attendant rewards their last day title win brings.

The need to tighten the belt has forced a contraction of Walter Smith's squad. Christian Dailly, Brahim Hemdani, Alan Gow and Charlie Adam have been discarded but it is a sign of how far he had waned, in both influence on the team and stature, that the passing of the once talismanic Barry Ferguson (reunited with ex-Gers boss Alex McLeish at Birmingham City) was not mourned with anything like the intensity of his previous defection to Blackburn in 2003.

'Booze-gate' and its unseemly fallout have ensured it is an undignified end to Ferguson's proud association with his boyhood heroes, but his departure is a mutually beneficial solution that allows Ferguson a second bite at the Premier League.

The Ibrox faithful will be confident that with the hugely impressive Steven Davis and Pedro Mendes, the returning Kevin Thomson and Maurice Edu that they are well equipped in the middle of the park without their ex-skipper although the addition of a pacy left-winger to add much-needed width would he high on Smith's wish-list.

Kris Boyd's decision to turn down Birmingham in January, and Madjid Bougherra's bucking of the recent trend that has seen quality Rangers defenders shipping out after a good spell, are reasons for the Copland Road faithful to be optimistic about their hopes of retaining the title; but, with no money to spend (and Andy Webster loaned to Dundee United) Rangers will once more be relying on the creaking frame of David Weir (who turns 40 this season) to last the pace at the heart of their defence.

Splitting the atom was doubtless a more straightforward task than the annual quest to separate the Old Firm at the top of the SPL come May, but Hearts proved three years ago that it can be done. Their third placed finish last year was a fitting reward to Csaba Laszlo's first season in charge at Tynecastle, but nevertheless the 23 point margin between them and runners-up Celtic represented more of a chasm than a gap. Despite the Jambos placing, goals - or a lack of them - were a problem for the Tynecastle outfit.

The now-departed midfielder Bruno Aguiar was Hearts' top scorer with seven and Laszlo has attempted to bolster his attacking options with the acquisition of Austrian striker David Witteveen. With Christope Berra, Christos Karipidis and Robbie Neilson departed from last year's side it's a new look Hearts defence and Laszlo will be hoping Bougherra's Algerian centre-half partner Ismael Bouzid can have a similar impact in Edinburgh.

There is a buzz of anticipation coming out of Easter Road though which suggests that third place is not beyond them after last year's disappointing show under Mixu Paatelainen. The return of big Yogi Hughes to Leith as his replacement has coincided with that of Merouane Zemmama following a year-long loan spell designed to overcome visa difficulties. If the sublimely-gifted Moroccan can link up well with Derek Riordan this season Hibs could make for an entertaining prospect.

The Leith San Siro faithful will be hoping their talented duo can compensate for the losses of captain Rob Jones - a steal for Scunthorpe at a reported £350,000 - and star striker Steven Fletcher who has joined Burnley. Both Hamilton and Motherwell are amongst the clubs who have also seen young talent lured away with the pull of England - and Wales - proving irresistible for players such as James McCarthy, Brian Easton, Paul Quinn, David Clarkson and Stephen Hughes.

The decision by the SPL to make this season's reserve league optional - an offer which, perhaps tellingly given the limitations placed on Walter Smith, Rangers were quick to consider - could have the effect of allowing the next generation of Scottish talent to be promoted quicker than may previously have been countenanced. The loss of Hamilton's young stars is, however, likely to see the Accies battling it out at the wrong end of the table once more.

Jim Jefferies' Kilmarnock, Falkirk, St. Mirren and new boys St. Johnstone are among the clubs who may also not have to concern themselves with trips to Glasgow following the April split. Three of the Scottish clubs who qualified for Europe this season are, already, unable to point to the distraction of continental football as an impediment to their domestic hopes for the season.

With Falkirk, Motherwell and Aberdeen slumping to dismal European exits, it is left to the Old Firm and Hearts to try to restore some sheen to Scottish football's smeared reputation on the continent. Celtic's historic win in Moscow has at least given their fans cause for cheer, but their 'reward' for the impressive overcoming of that hurdle is a double header with Arsenal.

Rangers have, of course, been able to prepare for the challenges of the domestic season free from the concerns of the qualifiers with Walter Smith using pre-season friendlies to experiment with formations ahead of the start of the Champions League campaign. Given the difficulties Smith is facing with regards to recruitment, he is likely to see those group games as a luxury bonus in a season where the overriding priority is to retain the league title.

Qualifying from whatever group they are placed in would be a major achievement given the constraints he is operating under. As for the eternal struggle for domestic domination between the two Glasgow giants, much will rest on the success of the signings made by Mowbray and the impact he can have on a Celtic side that floundered badly during last season as they allowed Rangers back in to the title race.

The signs so far are that Mowbray has already impressed upon his Celtic side the distinctive brand of attacking football that won him admirers at Hibs and the style of Celtic's victory in Moscow was as laudable for its attacking ambition as it was unlikely. It remains to be seen however whether such a bold style can yield titles as well as thrills. Rangers must hope that with the platform of their title-winning team intact but with no new faces, players either injured or out of form last season can provide the impetus to overcome the challenge of their greatest rivals.

Aberdeen - Hearts | Hibernian - St Mirren

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