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The Toe Poke

Open race to be best of the rest in SPL

It is almost guaranteed that the Old Firm will again dominate the race for the Scottish Premier League title this season. Fierce rivals Celtic and Rangers will do battle for the crown with new Bhoys boss Tony Mowbray has been charged with the task of taking the league trophy back to the East End of Glasgow.

Football pundits have long criticised the game north of the border, perennially labelling the league a two-horse race.

That may well be the case although the "New Firm" of Aberdeen and Dundee United did break the monopoly the Glasgow giants once had on the silverware in the 1980s. But just who can come out as the best of the rest in the division this term?

Hearts finished third in the last campaign as Csaba Laszlo stamped his authority on the Tynecastle club. In fact, the "Jambos" were the last club to split Celtic and Rangers in the league when they finished second at the end of the 2005/2006 campaign.

However, they've suffered something of a stuttering start to their season in losing their opening fixture away to Dundee United 2-0 before being crushed 4-0 on their travels to Dinamo Zagreb in their Europa League qualifier.

Laszlo's men did at least reveal some of their class in their most recent fixture when they went down with a real fight at home to Rangers.

Eventually losing 2-1, Hearts just couldn't hold out against the reigning champions although they will have at least been encouraged by their display. Laszlo said: "This was a better performance than we showed against Zagreb, but if you have so many young players then you are going to lose the ball a lot. But we were unlucky not to win all three points although we did make too many mistakes in midfield."

Hearts now face a test of their resolve as they look to bounce back in their next match against newly promoted St Johnstone. Laszlo will look to winger Andrew Driver to provide his side with another dimension when he returns from injury and he could be fit for the return clash with Dinamo Zagreb in Edinburgh.

Motherwell grabbed the honours when they secured third spot the season before last in Mark McGhee's debut campaign at Fir Park. But there have been lots of changes at the Steelmen since then as McGhee departed for Aberdeen during the close season.

Jim Gannon is now at the helm and he's been forced to place his faith in Motherwell's young guns following several high profile departures. All eyes will be on Gannon to see if he can make just as big an impact as McGhee did in his first season in charge.

In his opening two domestic matches Motherwell remain unbeaten following an opening day draw at St Johnstone and a victory over Kilmarnock in their second match. McGhee faces the added pressure of emulating the first season success he enjoyed at "Well".

He was also part of the famous Sir Alex Ferguson team that broke the silverware stranglehold the Old Firm had on the Scottish game in the 1980s when Aberdeen formed one half of that "New Firm" alongside Jim McLean's Dundee United.

However, things could hardly have been much worse for McGhee at the start of the campaign and he's certainly experienced a real baptism of fire. Aberdeen were gunned down 8-1 on aggregate by Sigma Olomouc in their Uefa Europa League qualification match.

That was before they lost 3-1 at home to Celtic but McGhee will have been heartened by his first competitive victory in charge following the comfortable win over Hamilton. He blooded 16-year-old Fraser Fyvie in the Accies clash but is still battling to bring in fresh faces before the transfer window slams shut at the end of the month.

The Dons finished fourth under Jimmy Calderwood last season and last grabbed third spot in the 2006/2007 season. McGhee will pin his hopes of a rapid rise up the league on Sone Aluko with the young winger a potential match winner.

Aberdeen's New Firm rivals Dundee United and Hibs are likely to mount a serious challenge to establish themselves as the third force north of the border. Hibs, now managed by John Hughes, are the only club outside of Rangers and Celtic to win their opening two fixtures.

They kicked off with a 2-1 victory over St Mirren at home before Hughes enjoyed a successful return to his former club Falkirk as his new side won 3-1. Hibs will look to new recruit Anthony Stokes for firepower in attack and if he can hit the goal trail he may well spark an Easter Road revival.

Dundee United remain unbeaten following their opening two fixtures following a victory over Hearts and a 0-0 draw at St Mirren. Craig Levein has shown he's a shrewd manager and the signing of Danny Cadamarteri could prove to be pivotal to United's charge for third place.

The winners of the race for third is likely to be the team that wins the majority of their home games. Hibs may well be favourites after their excellent start but this battle could well be the most intriguing of the season.


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