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Oct 15, 2009

McInnes ready to meet the gaffer again

The wisdom of Scotland's Far East excursions may have been called into question but last weekend's break from SPL action prolonged the feel-good factor at Rangers and St. Johnstone with vital wins seized a fortnight back. On the back of three points wrestled from Celtic and Hamilton respectively, Walter Smith and Derek McInnes will both look to build some momentum in Saturday's lunchtime kick-off which pits the champions of the SPL against last season's Division One champions.

A win would put Rangers top ahead of Celtic's game against Motherwell but the arrival of his old team at McDiarmid Park gives Saints manager McInnes the chance to measure his mettle against the man he still calls "gaffer".

Smith brought McInnes to Ibrox for £300,000 (a comparatively lavish sum by current straitened standards) in 1995. That Rangers return to McDiarmid Park for league business following a seven-year absence signals how rapidly McInnes has assimilated what he absorbed under Smith whilst at Ibrox. In his first full season in charge at St. Johnstone, McInnes brought top-flight football back to Perth.

Victories over Celtic and Hamilton respectively have steered both clubs back on course towards their polar opposite ambitions for the season.

Rangers' Old Firm win has lanced the pressure that was building on Smith after a trio of successive goalless draws in the SPL but the Rangers manager has been around long enough to know the goodwill that accompanies victory in the Glasgow derby will be visited in reverse upon him if Rangers slip up in their chase for the title at McDiarmid Park.

At least they are scoring again. The most glaring deficiency during that winless run was emphatically resolved within 15 minutes of the Celtic game and Kenny Miller (who seems to spark into life for the opening Old Firm derby of the season) brutally exposed the uncertainty at the heart of Tony Mowbray's Celtic team whilst providing his own fans with a timely reminder that he possesses a finisher's instinct to go with his undoubted energy and pace.

Miller has used the break to tend to a hamstring injury in Germany and the domestic hiatus has also allowed flu victims Lee McCulloch and Madjid Bougherra to recover, with both having missed the Old Firm victory.

Pedro Mendes' incentive of retaining his place in the Portugal side for their forthcoming World Cup play-offs following his surprise inclusion in their last two qualifiers can surely only benefit Rangers in the coming weeks and Smith will be relieved too that his midfield partner Steven Davis returned unscathed from Northern Ireland's Czech Republic game after his man-of-the-match performance against Celtic.

Smith's formation in that game resembled a ceaselessly shifting game of Jenga but with key men fit again Saturday should see a more familiar defensive line-up. Kris Boyd (this week the subject of renewed transfer speculation) remains a doubt after an eye injury sustained in the Old Firm game but his replacement that day, Kyle Lafferty, will be hungry for more having tasting competitive action for the first time this season. The signing of Jerome Rothen should allow Lafferty to move into his favoured centre-forward role having deputised out wide for much of his time since signing from Burnley. Rangers fans will be expecting to see more of a return from the £3 million man after an inconclusive first year in Scotland and a game against the SPL new boys should be viewed as the perfect opportunity for Lafferty, if selected, to get off the mark this time round.

St. Johnstone are likely to prove doughty opponents, as Rangers fans will recall from recent cup meetings. Although results have not been going Saints' way, performances since returning to the top flight have been more than encouraging and there is sufficient evidence to suggest they will be welcoming Rangers back here next season.

A 3-1 win at Easter Road has led them to the quarter-finals of the CIS Cup. The following week, the battling 2-0 victory (their first league win of the season) against fellow strugglers Hamilton hoisted them off the foot of the table. However, this triumph was described as McInnes as "arguably our worst in terms of performance". It was, however, an opportunely-timed boost that leavened the demoralising effects of the previous weekend's late defeat at Dundee United.

The 11 goals Saints have sprung in their opening seven SPL fixtures is just one less than Rangers have mustered so far and it is a tally that has been reached without the help of their strikers - Collin Samuel's opportunistic exploitation of Gary Caldwell's generosity representing the only occasion a St. Johnstone striker has breached a defence in the league.

This curious statistic will not trouble McInnes too much if goalscoring duties continue to be shared amongst his team. In midfield Martin Hardie is giving Charlie Mulgrew a run for his money in the SPL free-kick department, the £50,000 deal that brought Murray Davidson from Livingston already looks astute business and skipper Jody Morris (who, along with Filipe Morais and Steven Milne is an injury doubt) continues to impress - all three have weighed in with two goals each.

The win at Hamilton was secured via a contender for goal of the season from Danny Grainger - a left back - and a scrambled finish from centre-half Steven Anderson. The benefits of a healthy goals for column have, however, been diminished by a defence that has let in 16 goals so far - the worst record in the SPL. Kevin Rutkiewicz's imminent return to the Saints defence after his lengthy lay-off would be a timely boost. Although front-man Kenny Deuchar is yet to net in the SPL so far this season, David Weir will need no reminding of the aerial threat the target man poses after the brace he headed home at Ibrox for Gretna two seasons back. Saturday's game may come too soon for long-term absentee striker Peter MacDonald (who has placed faith in the restorative effects of goat's blood injections to cure him of a hamstring problem) to bolster the attack.

Recent history suggests Rangers are in for a tricky afternoon. Three years ago, Steven Milne's brace in a 2-0 CIS Cup win at Ibrox helped shorten Paul Le Guen's brief Rangers tenure and Daniel McBreen's extra-time header took Walter Smith's side to penalties in the 2008 Scottish Cup semi-final. Rangers overcame Saints 2-0 in the same competition in January and on Saturday, Walter Smith will want to leave McInnes in no doubt as to just who is "the gaffer".

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