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The demise of one half of the Old Firm has dramatically altered the landscape of Scottish football, but in this brave new world the top-flight can still offer intriguing challenges

ANALYSIS
By Chris Myson

This summer in Scottish football has been dominated by the saga at Rangers, with the Ibrox giants being liquidated, re-forming as a Newco and relegated to the bottom tier of the game.

The SPL rejected the chance to put the Gers straight back into the top-flight, while the Scottish Football League were similarly-minded in relation to any preferential treatment, meaning Ally McCoist’s men will start the new season in Division Three, the fourth tier of the Scottish professional game.

So what does that mean for the SPL? It is certainly a step into the unknown for the game north of the border.

Surely, though, Rangers' demise means Celtic will cruise their way to a second successive league title under little opposition? Put simply, yes. Neil Lennon’s men may not have the title officially won by Christmas but it is hard to foresee anything other than a dominant title defence.

The Glasgow giants were 1/33 on with the bookmakers to win the league this season and, remarkably, 1/5 on to win the SPL for each of the next five seasons, which says it all.

The line from the likes of Lennon and captain Scott Brown in the Celtic camp is that winning the league is going to be as difficult as ever, that the other 11 sides will step up and provide a stern challenge, meaning they have to stay on their toes.

In reality, they know the league will be won at a canter and that should help them to perform better in European competition this season, something that will benefit all the Scottish clubs with the increase in the co-efficient rankings if they can enjoy some continental success.

PLAYER TO WATCH
 GARY HOOPER - CELTIC




Hooper has scored 44 times in 64 SPL games in his two seasons so far, continuing the prolific streak he showed with former club Scunthorpe.

His all-round game, skill and strength continue to improve and, fitness permitting, he will surely pick up the golden boot this year. An England call-up may not be too far away.
Celtic were unconvincing on the opening day, defeating Aberdeen 1-0 at home thanks only to a late goalkeeping blunder, and there will be games where they are defeated in upsets. But over the course of a full season, there are simply no other sides with squads strong enough to challenge them.

It has been a quiet transfer market for Lennon, with the permanent signing of goalkeeper Fraser Forster from Newcastle the only piece of incoming business so far, while only fringe players, like Efrain Juarez, have gone out the exit door.

The demise of Rangers does open up the rest of the league interestingly, with the prize of second place and Champions League football up for grabs.

A new TV deal has been signed, encompassing Rangers matches in the SFL, which will mean slightly less money but a bigger spread of TV funds amongst Scottish clubs, so the immediate financial future of the game has been secured.

The biggest hit to those SPL clubs’ bank accounts will be from the loss of gate receipts from matches with the blue half of Glasgow and they will all need their fans to turn out in good numbers throughout the campaign after chairmen bowed to their demands by voting in favour of sporting integrity and relegating Rangers through the divisions.

MANAGER TO WATCH
 STUART McCALL - MOTHERWELL



Since taking charge of Motherwell, McCall has maximised the potential of his small squad and moved wisely in the transfer market.

The Fir Park side have enjoyed long cup runs and finished a lofty third in the SPL last season. They should be there or thereabouts near the top of the table again this time around.
The loss of revenue from the Gers’ situation means the other clubs have had to make changes to their budgets and the sides outside of Celtic who perform best may well be the ones who have simply lost fewer players than their rivals.

Motherwell were third last season and should be able to mount a challenge for a strong finish again this time around. Stuart McCall has been able to keep the majority of his small but able squad together and they will be a difficult side to beat.

Dundee United are well placed to put in a strong challenge for second. They may have lost heavily to Dynamo Moscow in the Europa League and lost key player Scott Robertson in the summer, but they still have the goals of Jon Daly in attack and are well placed to build on their 4th place finish last time out.

The other side who can be expected to challenge strongly for second are Hearts, who won last season’s Scottish Cup in emphatic fashion. The Jambos are the only side who have broken up the Old Firm dominance of the SPL in recent years, finishing second in 2006, and their demanding supporters will be expectant of a similar finish this time around.

There have been a number of changes over the summer at Tynecastle, though. They have a new manager in John McGlynn and saw a number of key players leave this summer – some through budget cuts and others who rejected new deals, with no one through the door to replace them.

But there is still good SPL quality amongst the squad in the likes of Andy Webster and Andrew Driver, so they should continue to progress this year and be strong challengers for second.

DARK HORSES
 HEARTS



Last year’s Scottish Cup winners have changed their manager, slashed their budget and lost some key players.

However, they still have good pedigree and enough talented players remaining in their squad to put in a strong challenge for second place.
The scrap for the final spot in the top six is a tighter one to call. Aberdeen fans have endured some barren years of late, but their team may be ready to make a stronger challenge this time around.

They too have lost players, but Craig Brown has made some good signings like Niall McGinn and Gary Naysmith. They put on a strong showing against Celtic in week one and should be in the shake-up for a top-half finish.

St Johnstone are a club who have punched above their weight in recent seasons but they will feel the loss of star striker Francisco Sandaza, who has joined Rangers. However, they have made some solid signings like Nigel Hasselbaink and after a good pre-season, should be in line for a mid-table spot.

Hibs are a side with one of the biggest budgets in the league and will be desperate to improve on last season’s 11th place finish and heavy defeat to rivals Hearts in the Cup final. The goals of Leigh Griffiths, on loan from Wolves, should ensure they do that, but the heavy opening day defeat to Dundee United shows there is still a lot of work to do.

St. Mirren are a side with ambitions of a top-six finish each year, but in reality another season of survival would represent a passable campaign. Steven Thomson is a good striker at SPL level, but manager Danny Lennon is feeling the loss of a number of other players in the transfer market.

League Cup winners Kilmarnock have lost key man Dean Shiels to Rangers this summer and a poor pre-season has not created much optimism. The biggest worry for Killie will be where the goals are coming from and they will have to work hard to stay clear of the relegation dogfight.

Terry Butcher’s Inverness finished 10th last season and you would not bet against a similar result this time around. A number of first-team players have left and while new blood has been brought in, it is hard to see them finishing above too many teams or making significant progress.

The First Division champions last season were Ross County. Derek Adams’ team have a solid enough side who were very impressive in gaining promotion last season. They’ve enjoyed a strong pre-season and won’t be rolled over too often in the top-flight, but the Highlanders are a small club and avoiding relegation will be the only target for the SPL debutants.

The beneficiaries of Rangers’ demise were Dundee, who gained promotion despite only finishing second in the First Division. The Dee are a big club in comparison to some of the others in the SPL but have suffered financial problems in recent years, with two administrations. They could have enough to survive on their return to the top-flight, though, after making some smart acquisitions over the summer.

While the league is almost certain to go to Celtic, Rangers’ fall through the divisions leaves a number of intriguing battles amongst the other 11 clubs and there still will be life in the top-flight until the Ibrox club’s eventual return.

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