Scottish Premier League preview
Five things to watch for this season
With the Scottish Premier League season kicking off this weekend, we'll see some unfamiliar names jockeying for success this term. The past offseason seemed to drag on unlike any other, with the disparaging demise of Glasgow Rangers dominating headlines ever since the last ball was kicked in the 2011-12 campaign. The repercussions of their demotion to the Third Division still haven't been fully felt, as a dark cloud gathers over Scottish football.
But with the SPL's most successful side now missing, as well as the Old Firm, a more refreshing and competitive division for the 2012-13 season has been forged.
Contenders for the crown
With Rangers out of picture until at least 2015, when they'd be eligible for promotion to the first tier, which perennial pretender will emerge as an SPL contender?
Motherwell is the obvious candidate, with manager Stuart McCall working wonders on a shoe-string budget at Fir Park. The club assumed the Champions League spot left vacant by Rangers this season after a terrific third-place finish last year in the SPL. However, the rigors of competing in Europe will have an impact on McCall's young squad and the loss of influential midfielder Steve Jennings to the Rangers (the new incarnation of the Glasgow club) means The Well may struggle to give Celtic a run for their money.
The sides most likely to mount a serious challenge are the last two teams other than Celtic or Rangers to win an SPL title: Dundee United and Aberdeen.
Since 2007, United hasn't finished outside the SPL's top five. Manager Peter Houston has assembled a talented squad, a blend of youth and experience that includes ex-Manchester City midfielder Willo Flood and Scottish under-21 international Gary Mackay-Stevens. United will fancy its chances of chasing down Celtic to win its first title since 1983.
Aberdeen last won the title in 1985 and former Scotland manager Craig Brown will be hoping the heaps of talent he managed to acquire in the offseason will drastically improve on last season's disappointing ninth-place finish. New signings Niall McGinn and Jonny Hayes will add a cutting edge to Aberdeen's attack, as the Dons seek a return to the glory days of the Alex Ferguson era.
Then, of course, there's Celtic.
Champions elect? With a plucky set of underachievers in their way, many believe Celtic will storm to their 44th league title. This year it seems complacency will be their largest demon.
If manager Neil Lennon's side gets its mindset wrong, the aforementioned teams may pull off a few shocks. The weight of expectancy on the Hoops is huge -- 60,000 loud, expectant fans at Celtic Park defeat many opposition teams before the first whistle is blown. Where Celtic may struggle is away from home, after losing four times last season in less glamorous surroundings.
Balancing a potential UEFA Champions League bid with domestic success will not be easy. Lennon's squad has been trimmed with the expected loss in revenue from no Old Firm games and less lucrative TV deals.
Either way, Celtic will be desperate to rub salt into the wounds of their dilapidated neighbor by celebrating their second straight SPL title come May.
No more Old Firm, but try these
For the first time since 1891, there will be no Old Firm rivalry between Rangers and Celtic. It will be a fixture sorely missed by fans of both teams and soccer fans across the globe.
But some intriguing SPL rivalries are in the cards. The Dundee derby is not one for the faint-hearted. After seven seasons battling in the first division, Dundee can look forward to battling it out with its next-door neighbor United once again. With the teams' stadiums just yards away from each other on Tannadice Street, there will be plenty of teasing chants aimed at Dundee after their promotion came almost by default after replacing Rangers.
That derby revives one of the most passionate and famous matchups in Scottish football, adding an extra edge to league play. Another lesser-known -- but just as fiercely contested -- rivalry is the Highland derby between Ross County (in its first SPL season) and Inverness Caledonian Thistle. The contest between the UK's two most northerly professional soccer teams will make its first-ever appearance in Scotland's top division.
As the dust finally settles on a traumatic spell for Rangers and Scottish football, the wreckage left behind -- after administration, takeovers, transfer embargoes and player departures -- is an ugly one.
A new club, The Rangers Football Club, rose from the depths of despair and competed in its first game July 29 against second-division outfit Brechin City in the Ramsdens Scottish Cup. Rangers won, narrowly, thanks to an extra-time strike from Lee McCulloch.
Manager Ally McCoist is assembling his squad for lower-division dominance. But it's a tedious task, made more frustrating by restrictions put in place by the Scottish Football Association after Rangers exited administration.
U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra skippered the side against Brechin and was joined by new signing Ian Black and Scottish internationals Kirk Broadfoot, Lee Wallace, Neil Alexander and McCulloch. But how long they'll stay around is another matter.
Low crowds, humble stadia and less-than-friendly "banter" from fans in Peterhead, Elgin and Montrose is the harsh reality of life in the lower leagues. Yet at every away venue, Rangers will be followed by thousands of adoring fans that are pleased just to see their team in action.
The silver lining
With a more competitive Premier League for the upcoming season, there is one overwhelming winner -- the Scottish national team. With Dundee United, Aberdeen, Motherwell and Hearts all fielding young Scottish talent, the players will develop and prosper from a more competitive and meaningful league campaign.
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Yes, having Rangers in the league may increase the standard of the SPL. But it also hindered the development of younger Scottish players, who were forced out by foreign imports.
Now the Scottish youngsters will get the chance to show just how good they really are, as they spearhead the pack of teams shuffling to challenge Celtic to the SPL crown.
How will the table look come the end of the season?
1. Celtic, 2. Dundee United, 3. Aberdeen, 4. Hearts, 5. Motherwell, 6. Hibernian, 7. St Johnstone, 8. St Mirren, 9. Kilmarnock, 10. Inverness CT, 11. Ross County, 12. Dundee
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