Category: Football

Who is Ralf Rangnick?

Following Birmingham’s compensation demands for Chris Hughton, West Bromwich Albion are still in the hunt for a new manager to replace Roy Hodgson who left his post at the Hawthorns to take charge of England.

The Baggies cannot be accused of rushing into an appointment. They were apparently aware that Hodgson would take up his new role as early as March and three months later they are still yet to confirm his successor.

Hughton was the bookies’ favourite for a long time but when Birmingham requested a fee in the region of £2.5m, the economical Jeremy Peace baulked and cast his net elsewhere. That net has reportedly landed in leftfield territory somewhere in Germany at the feet of former Schalke boss Ralf Rangnick.

The man who took the Gelsenkirchen outfit to a Champions League semi-final back in 2011 is a free agent after resigning from his role at the Veltins Arena back in September 2011, citing exhaustion as the reason behind his decision.

‘The Football Professor’ got his big break at Vfb Stuttgart in 1999, but lasted just two seasons before being sacked. By the time the next campaign had started he had taken up the offer of at job at Hannover 96 who he subsequently got promoted to the Bundesliga. A consolidating first season at the top level was followed by relegation trouble and he was again fired from his post. A first spell at Schalke yielded a runners-up position in both league and the DFB Cup but the following season saw them struggle in both the Champions League and Bundesliga and once again, he was dismissed.

He then dropped down two divisions to take the helm at small town village club Hoffenheim. Funded by local businessman Dietmar Hopp, Rangnick masterminded successive promotions to make the club the team they are today. His signings at TSG1899 included the likes of Demba Ba, Chinedu Obasi, Sajid Salihovic & Luis Gustavo to name but a few. All bar the Bosnian have left the club for bigger clubs and that is testimony to Rangnick’s eye for a player.

Rangnick – set for a return to England?

In fact, the sale of Gustavo to Bayern was against his will and was the catalyst behind his resignation from Hoffenheim. Two months later he returned to Schalke who were quickly facing Internazionale in a Champions League quarter-final. Rangnick quickly restored the sides’ belief and they ran out 7-3 aggregate winners, before losing 6-1 to Manchester United over two legs in the semi-final. It was a manic few months for Rangnick and he had been in charge for only nine months when he left Schalke for a second time.

An attacking manager, Rangnick is a fan of players with great technical ability and often allows the talented individuals of his sides to roam free and create chances.

Baggies fans that have reservations about a foreign manager taking charge need not worry. In the late 1970’s Rangnick studied in England, playing for local Sussex side FC Southwick and making 11 appearances. In an interview The Guardian conducted with former team-mate Gary Brown, his professionalism comes to the fore.

“In Germany they did proper warm-ups prior to kick-off but there was none of that in the UK,” Brown told The Guardian. “Five minutes before kick-off the bell went and you lined up behind the captain and went out. I remember before his first game here he turned up a couple of hours before anyone else.”

Rangnick was unfortunate to suffer two broken ribs and a punctured lung in a game, but credits the experience as “one of the best years of my life”.

He soon left these shores following the completion of his English and Physical Education degree, but it looks as though Jeremy Peace is moving to bring him back once more.

Wouldn’t you be knackered if you was Pep?

On the day Josep Guardiola decided enough was enough and he would leave Barcelona – the question on many people’s lips was the same simple query whatever the language. “Why? ¿Por qué?”

During his press conference, he stated that he was stepping down from his role at the Camp Nou to take a sabbatical from football – admitting in the process he was ‘drained’ and that his four-year stint at the helm of his boyhood team was enough for him.

That reasoning has been questioned by many. How can a manager who moulded possibly ‘the greatest club side ever seen’ be too tired to continue? Especially when he is just 41 years old – a youngster in the managerial world.
After all, Sir Alex Ferguson this season notched up his 25th year in charge of Manchester United. He has not tired from constantly winning and despite regular threats of retirement; Ferguson cannot seem to shake the football bug as easily as Guardiola seemingly has. Another example in the Premier League is Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger who joined the Gunners in 1996 and has never seriously looked in danger of relinquishing his powers.

But what is overlooked in this debate is Guardiola’s constant involvement in the game at the highest level. He joined Barcelona at the age of 13 and has been involved at the upper echelons of football for all but four of those years.
However, if you take a look at Ferguson’s playing career, it is nowhere close to matching up to Guardiola’s. A two-year stint with Glasgow Rangers is the highlight of Sir Alex’s playing days and the same applies to Wenger who never made it higher than the RC Strasbourg first-team where he made a paltry 11 appearances. Guardiola’s biggest rival in Spain, Jose Mourinho, never made it past 100 appearances in professional football. All three of these men have gone on to have glittering success as managers and coaches of some of Europe’s biggest teams and have done so for many years. However, not a single one has had to deal with the mental and physical pressures of playing for one of the world’s biggest teams on a daily basis since they were teenagers.

Guardiola played consecutively for Barcelona’s ‘A’ team for 11 years, missing only the majority of the 1997-1998 season due to a calf injury. He regularly played Champions League football and featured in cup competitions, meaning he will have often played three games in a week. He won 16 trophies and made 263 appearances for Barcelona as well as representing his country in the 1994 World Cup and Euro 2000 and captaining his country’s Olympics side to glory in the 1992 games in his home town. (A disagreement with then-manager Javier Clemente prevented him from featuring at Euro ’96 and the aforementioned calf injury kept him away from France ’98).
In Italy, he also managed to play Champions League and Coppa Italia football. In fact, Guardiola only ever slowed down when he moved to Qatar in 2003 and eventually he quit football after playing six months with Mexican side Dorados in 2006.

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Guardiola has often looked physically drained

Just a year later and ‘Pep’ was back at Barcelona as the coach of the club’s ‘B’ team. It was his first role as a coach, yet he lead the team to promotion and later that season was named as the successor to the departing Frank Rijkaard. It had certainly been an eventful, and no doubt tiring, first year in management for the rookie.
But the pressure that comes with the power of Barcelona manager has seemingly taken its toll on one of the club’s biggest icons. Guardiola has made no secret of the fact he was willing to walk away from the Camp Nou. He only ever signed rolling one-year contracts at the club, giving himself the flexibility to not renew whenever he felt the time was right. There have been incorrect murmurings for the past two summers that he may not sign up for another year, but this campaign has been the defining one for Guardiola.

“Time has taken its toll – I rise each day and don’t feel the same. I am going with the understanding that I have done my duty,” he said during his press conference.
“You can only recover by resting and getting away from everything. It would have been a bad idea to continue. Perhaps it [this season] would not have gone wrong but I have the perception that it would. It is my time to go. That happiness to actually be able to take control of the A team was unbelievable and I need to recover that, I need to recover that feeling.”

It is not as surprising as it may first seem that Pep needs a rest period. Having to endure three press conferences a week, spend every day at the training ground from 8am until 10pm fine-tuning the Catalan’s beautiful football philosophy and having to put up with Mourinho trying to shoot you down every day will eventually become arduous enough for any man. But it becomes much harder when you have already spent two decades of your life living football and not recuperating.

However, this will not be the end of Guardiola. The talk is that he will take a year off from the game before viewing his options. There is even the possibility that he could return to Barcelona. The Catalan’s immediately installed Guardiola’s assistant Tito Villanova as the new manager and whilst this seems to be a move that shows stability and continuity, it also leaves the gap open for Guardiola to return after he has discovered his love for the game once more.

He may even be influencing the club from afar next season, saying in his own words: “If Tito needs me, I’ll be there.”

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Vilanova has Guardiola just a phone call away

Gladbach’s Champions League dream back on

A late winner from Igor De Camargo this weekend meant that the wheels were firmly back on Borussia Monchengladbach’s Champions League bus.

After picking up just two points in their previous three games and looking set to draw 1-1 away at Leverkusen, themselves in the hunt for Champions League place, it looked like the Gladbach bubble was set to burst. However, Marco Reus released the Belgian international De Camargo in the 88th minute and he rounded the ‘keeper to give Lucien Favre’s team all three points and keep Gladbach in third position – 11 points clear of Leverkusen.
Favre realised how important the goal was as he raced down the touchline to join his players in celebration in front of the corner flag. It is moments like this that can define a season. Snatching wins from what looks inevitable draws is a major characteristic of Champions League teams.

What makes Gladbach’s probable achievement even more astounding is that they finished last season in the sole relegation play-off place. That meant, to preserve their Bundesliga status, they would need to overcome Vfl Bochum in a two-legged play-off. They duly won the first leg at Borussia-Park 1-0 thanks to a last-minute goal from, you guessed it, De Camargo. Their survival was sealed when Marco Reus scored an equaliser in the second leg to hand them a 2-1 aggregate win.

In February 2011, despite having a talented squad, Gladbach were defensively unstable and bottom of the league. Having thrown away a 2-0 lead over Stuttgart they then lost 3-1 to St. Pauli and manager Michael Frontzeck was duly sacked on the 13th. Just a day later, on Valentine’s Day, the Swiss Favre was appointed and that is where the revival and love affair began.
Having rescued Gladbach by the skin of their teeth, Favre was looking to build around the talented set of players already at his disposal. His first job was to shore the defence up and that is where Gladbach have based their successes this season. They have conceded just 16 goals in 26 games this campaign – a record matched only by leaders and reigning champions Borussia Dortmund. A lot of praise for that goes directly to Favre, Brazilian defender Dante and the latest in the production line of young and talented German goalkeepers – Marc Andre Ter-Stegen.

The goalkeeper has been nurtured by Gladbach since the age of four and came to prominence last season. When Favre took over, he gave Ter-Stegen his chance to help his hometown club survive. It proved to be an inspired piece of management as the youngster conceded just four goals in the eight games in Borussia’s relegation battle. His best game in that run was in a 1-0 win over eventual champions Dortmund where he made a string of world-class saves to earn his side three mammoth points. Like his idol Oliver Kahn, he is not afraid to shout at his defenders and is very brave in coming off of his line to thwart chances. Reports of interest from Barcelona have lead to him being given a renewed contract until 2015, but if he continues to progress at this rate, it is unlikely he will stay at the club.

Marc Andre Ter-Stegen

The solidity of the team means they do not score a plethora of goals, their 39 is the joint-lowest in the top 6, but they play a style of football that is pleasant to watch. They move the ball quickly, play one-touch passes and move, always looking to receive the ball again.

“The automatism’s we practice during training are paying off in our matches. I’m sure the fans in the stadium and people watching on TV enjoy our football and that is our goal. Modern football is becoming one-touch football and we can always get better. The passing can be more accurate, you can improve your weaker foot,” says striker Mike Hanke.

One player guaranteed to be playing Champions League football regardless of Gladbach’s finishing position is the jewel in their crown; Marco Reus. The German international has agreed to join his hometown club Dortmund in the summer for a fee of €17.5 million, signing a five-year deal in the process. It has been no surprise to see Reus courted by the biggest names both in Germany and across the continent having scored 14 goals and notched six assists in 24 games this campaign. Nine Man of the Match appearances have pointed to the fact that he is the main instigator of Gladbach’s attacking play and his dribbling speed makes him almost impossible to stop. With the likes of Shinji Kagawa and Mario Gotze, two players in the mould of Reus, already plying their trade at Dortmund, it is easy to see why he has chosen to join the reigning champions.

The Rolls-Reus of Gladbach

It is easy to think that Gladbach are a one-man team when you investigate Reus’ stats and watch how they play, but that would be an insult to one of their other playmakers; Juan Arango. The Venezuelan attacking midfielder has been equally as impressive as Reus this season and has created more goals (nine) for his teammates than anybody else, whilst also notching five times. His lethal left-foot is dangerous from free-kicks and from range – you let him shoot at your peril.

Wednesday sees a big test of Gladbach’s Champions League credentials as they face a rampant Bayern Munich side in the semi-final of the DFB-Pokal Cup. Bayern have notched 20 goals in their last three games and are showing no signs of relenting as they look to close the five-point gap on Dortmund. However, Gladbach are no strangers to overturning Munich having defeated them on the opening day of the season at the Allianz Arena when De Camargo, again, scored a late winner. Bayern dominated the corresponding fixture in Gladbach but were hit on the counter-attack and lost the game 3-1.

This is the biggest game of the season, and for some the careers, for Gladbach’s squad and Brazilian defender Dante, who has been linked with a move to Munich in the past, is determined to keep the Foals’ fairytale season going.

“For a lot of players it’s the game of their lives. I desperately want to get to the final in Berlin. That would be a dream and we’ll give our all to make it come true… Last season we were nearly relegated. Now we’re third in the table and a game away from the cup final. It’s unbelievable, for the fans above all,” said the defender.

Despite the turnaround, Favre remains the most cautious man in Gladbach, reminding the fans that they need ‘to stop dreaming’ before the win over Leverkusen. His reaction to the weekend winner shows that he is a dreamer at heart and should his team beat Bayern and qualify for the Champions League, it will be a story from the deepest realms of any Foals fans fantasy.

* Stats on Arango and Reus from the excellent website www.whoscored.com*

Eduardo Vargas – South America’s ‘next big thing’

As Eduardo Vargas slalomed his way past three LDU Quito challenges and slotted home last night, the whole of Europe sat up to take notice.

The Chilean striker dubbed the ‘new Alexis Sanchez’ scored his 11th goal of this season’s Copa Sudamericana last night as Universidad de Chile swept past Ecuadorian giants LDU Quito.

The feat is a new record for the competition and is richly deserved for the forward, who has been linked with a European giants such as Chelsea and Inter Milan already.

His performance last night summed up exactly why Inter manager Claudio Ranieri has publicly stated his admiration for Chile’s hottest new prospect. He opened the scoring for La U after just two minutes last night, touching the ball on three separate occasions in the build-up before a deflected cross fell into his path and he rifled home a left-footed volley, whilst leaning back, to add to the solitary goal he had scored in the first leg of this final.

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He was involved in everything good that Universidad did last night and played a part in the second goal too. After playing a neat one-two on the edge of the LDU box, Vargas fired a shot at the near post from a tight angle that was too strong for the ‘keeper to hold and the rebound fell to Gustavo Lorenzetti who slotted home. However, his best contribution was yet to come.

In the 86th minute, Vargas received the ball just inside the opposition half. Not once did he look up for a team-mate, his only intention was to score. He got his head down and accelerated past his midfield tracker, skipped past the onrushing defender and then rounded the remaining defender to leave him one-on-one where he lofted the ball into the far top corner to add the icing to the La U victory.

That goal sealed his place in Sudamericana history and sealed his award, given to him by Chilean legend Marcelo Salas, as the player of the tournament; there could be no doubt.

A lot of praise for Vargas’ emergence must go down to his coach, Jorge Sampaoli. The Argentine manager couldn’t get a break in his homeland and after a spell with Emelec in Ecuador, he was handed the job as La U manager this season. He brought with him a Marcelo Bielsa inspired 3-4-3 system where the forwards interchange on a regular basis (as they also do at Barcelona), and this has allowed Vargas to come inf rom the flank and have shots at goal.A winger with pace and skill, it is easy to see why people would compare him to his compatriot at Barcelona, but Vargas is different to Alexis in that he scores more goals and gets involved a lot more centrally than Sanchez would.

Liverpool have also been rumoured to have checked out Vargas, whilst Napoli’s South American scouting system has found them the gems of Ezequiel Lavezzi, Edinson Cavani (via Palermo) and Walter Gargano and has also listed Vargas as a target. The financial muscle of Russian giants Zenit St. Petersberg has also seen them linked.

Chelsea’s link comes from the fact their chief South American scout is Chilean Jorge Alvial and with Didier Drogba stalling over a new contract and Nicolas Anelka moving to China in January, Andre Villas-Boas will be looking for a new striker when the transfer window opens once more.

A move to Italy or Spain, where Villareal have been linked, looks the most likely destination as work permit issues could scupper any move to England. Despite his emergence, Vargas has only appeared in four of Chile’s last 12 competitive games (33%)*. Meaning he would miss out as FA Premier League rules state “a non-EU player applying for the permit must have played for his country in at least 75 percent of its competitive ‘A’ team matches for which he was available for selection during the previous two years.” Special dispensation could be granted if an English side could convince the judging panel that his precocious talent would be a worthy addition to English football, but it is a tough task.

A fee of between £10m-12m has been spoken of by Vargas’ agent, a figure which would be beneficial to both parties. La U cannot compete financially with the giants of South America, especially the Brazilian clubs like Santos who can pay Neymar European figure wages, and the money raised from this sale would set them up for a few years to come, whilst also representing a bargain for the lucky team to acquire the next big thing in South American football.

*Thanks to @Rupert_Fryer for the stat

Are Everton too good to go down?

It has now become a cliché of football fans everywhere to dismiss their chances of relegation on the basis they’re ‘too good’ to go down.

West Ham United are probably the biggest example that quality players doesn’t always amount to Premier League safety.

They were relegated in 2003 despite boasting Paulo Di Canio, Les Ferdinand, David James, Joe Cole and Jermain Defoe amongst their ranks. A 2-2 draw at St. Andrew’s against Birmingham City was enough to see them relegated to the disbelief of most neutral fans.

Fast forward almost a decade and you could be forgiven that Everton could possibly follow suit. Not only have they lost their talismanic playmaker Mikel Arteta, they also crucially failed to swell the already miniscule striking department at Goodison Park.

Arteta has come in for some criticism over the past season from Everton fans, goals against Liverpool and Man Utd not enough to keep some from suggesting that he was below-par for the season.

However, losing him for £10m is not how Moyes would have envisaged his day panning out. Arteta is 30 in April, which makes his move to the youthful Gunners all the more surprising, but once their interest was apparent, he was compelled to put in a transfer request to force the move through. Some fans feel that his best years may well be behind him, but if Arsene Wenger is still interested, there must be something about Arteta that makes him a worthy replacement for Cesc Fabregas.

Mikel Arteta

Everton are actually quite blessed in centre-midfield, in terms of numbers, but now Arteta has gone, it is hard to see who will control the games for them. Dinijar Bilyaletdinov, Tim Cahill, Leon Osman, Marouane Fellaini, and young Ross Barkley can all play in an creative midfield role, but will they be able to play there to Arteta’s standards. Cahill is deemed more of a finisher than a creator of chances, Fellaini is more likely to be deployed as a holding man, Bilyaletdinov has yet to settle properly and Barkley, despite his obvious talent, is too young to take on that kind of role. That leaves Leon Osman as Everton’s biggest creative threat. However, Arteta wasn’t an advanced playmaker and tended to do a lot of his work from a deep-lying role, something Osman isn’t accustomed to.

As if creating chances wasn’t going to be difficult enough, who is going to finish them when they do come along?
Everton started the day with four senior strikers and ended it with one less. James Vaughan was sold to Norwich early in the summer, whilst Jermaine Beckford left to join Sven Goran-Eriksson’s Leicester City revolution.

There is no doubt all Evertonians will be delighted to see the back of Yakubu, a striker they’ve deemed ‘lazy’, a trait barred on Merseyside. However, they may be disappointed to learn he has only been replaced by one other striker. That striker is called (let me make sure I get this right) Denis Stracqualursi, an Argentinian forward signed on loan from Tigres in his homeland. Stracqualursi is a typical ‘English No. 9’ type of player. A tall, strong, battering-ram of a striker, he scored a hat-trick vs Boca Juniors earlier this year – including two stunning headers.


However positive reports of Stracqualursi may seem, Everton fans need to beware that he needs time to settle and may not hit the ground running. Last summer, Wigan signed a striker similar in stature by the name of Mauro Boselli. One League Cup goal later, he was on his way to Genoa and has since gone back to Argentina.
That leaves the physiotherapists nightmares’ Louis Saha and Victor Anichebe as Everton’s strikeforce. Not something you want to be reliant on by any means.

So if Stracqualursi hasn’t settled and Saha is injured, where do Everton’s goals come from?

Even with those that have left, Everton were terrible against Blackburn at the weekend, winning only after Rovers had missed two penalties and Arteta had converted theirs.

Surely it is now only a matter of time before the rest of the crown jewels are sold off? Another season at the same level of last season for Leighton Baines and clubs will be queuing up to sign him. Phil Jagielka was already targeted by Wenger this summer and even an impressive season for Barkley could see the big boys come calling.

But the man Everton fans should fear losing the most from this fallout is their manager. David Moyes continues to work wonders on the shoestring budgets given to him by the board. (I blogged about their finances a month ago here) How much longer will he tolerate the club’s best players being sold off and not replaced before his head is turned? Aston Villa were linked with him before appointing Alex McLeish and Moyes will be top of a lot of club’s wishlists, should they part with their managers.

Moyes has managed to get Everton into the Champions League during his tenure, but this season could be one of his biggest challenges yet. A lack of natural creativity and a gambler’s strike force could see goals dry up and the Merseyside club plummet.

The question remains. Are Everton too good to go down?

Will anybody ever buy Everton?

Whilst Leeds United fans can be understandably excited by the signing of Preston goalkeeper Andy Lonergan, the move must surely ring some alarm bells at Everton.

Lonergan spent time at the back end of last season training at Goodison Park and a move was reportedly close to being agreed. However, United have pipped them to his signing, apparently due to the Toffees’ inability to stump up the £200k fee.

Everton’s finances, or lack of them, have been well-documented in the past. A club that has qualified for the Champions League despite a stringent budget, usually signing cast-offs (Phil Neville, Tim Howard, Sylvain Distin), taking a chance on lower league players (Tim Cahill, Phil Jagielka, Jermaine Beckford) or finding a foreign diamond (Fellaini, Arteta, Coleman). It begs the question, why has nobody bought, or at least invested in, Everton?

The Toffees have watched Birmingham City, Blackburn Rovers and Sunderland, amongst others, be taken over. But yet, they are never even linked with an influx of cash. But why is this?

Birmingham’s Chinese owner; Carson Yeung

Birmingham was taken over by Chinese owners, as Birmingham has a high Chinese population. Blackburn was taken over by the Indian poultry firm Venky’s, again, the area is heavily-populated by ethnics, in this case Indians. So that clears those two up, they were both bought by owners who can relate to the demographic of the area. But that doesn’t really help Everton. Liverpool is 94.3% populated by white people, meaning ethnicities are not as popular as in areas such as Birmingham (29.6% ethnicity rate) and Blackburn (27.5% Asian), so foreign owners would not be looking at Everton as a club to buy and promote abroad.

Sunderland were taken over by American Ellis Short, and whilst there are not many Americans in the North-East, Sunderland have one big pull to investors that Everton don’t; a large, new stadium.

The first thing any buyer would need to do is make Everton’s proposed new stadium happen. Whether it is sharing with Liverpool, or a stadium all of their own, Everton need to replace Goodison Park. A renovation and expansion is out of the question due to the amount of residential housing surrounding the ground.

Obviously, the government need to help Everton out and give them permission to build a stadium at the earmarked Kirkby, but a new owner with promises of bags of investment could well twist their arm.

Everton’s planned new stadium

However, manager David Moyes has stated that the club doesn’t need new owners, he’s quite happy with the board he has, just that need substantial investment; something Chairman Bill Kenwright agrees with.

“”New ownership isn’t always the solution to everything. What you want is the right people and the right people are already at Everton. We don’t need new owners; we need an investment of money.” Moyes told The Guardian back in 2011.

Moyes is a huge pull to any new investors. The work he has done on the budgets he has been given is nothing short of miraculous. Any new investor would look to tie Moyes down, and he has personally stated he doesn’t need bags of cash to get the Toffees progressing. Music to the ears of investors.

“Maybe the football team doesn’t need £100m. Maybe the football team needs an amount that would give it a chance to breathe again and grow a little bit more. That’s maybe why we don’t need a zillionaire,” he again told the Guardian.

Another good omen for the Toffees is their youth academy. However, at the moment a bad point is that these talents are often sold on to bigger clubs. The main example, of course, being Wayne Rooney. Sold to Manchester United for close to £30m, the club had to sell him in order to fund Moyes’ push for European and Champions League football.

Everton fans will be hoping that Jack Rodwell will not follow suit. The talented anchorman has been linked to United, but so far, the club has managed to retain him.

However, an impressive season would create more interest in him, and others, and Everton will need new investment to feel they can turn down the big money bids that could come their way.

Jack Rodwell – Will he follow suit?

For an in-depth look at Everton’s finances and the influence that has on their potential buyers, I would definitely recommend you read the brilliant @SwissRamble’s blog. The Everton link can be found here 

SPL Preview – 2011/2012

The SPL season is upon us after officials moved the start date of the league to this weekend – the earliest Scotland’s premier division has ever begun.

The date has been brought forward to alleviate the amount of midweek games played by SPL teams, whilst also benefitting Scotland’s European representatives by playing competitive football earlier.

Rangers pipped Celtic to the title last season on the last day of the season. However, Ally McCoist has taken over from legendary manager Walter Smith and will have a big job on his hands to replicate his predecessor.

McCoist will again lock horns with controversial Celtic manager Neil Lennon after their spat at Parkhead last season, but Lennon is under pressure to deliver the title back to the green side of Glasgow.

Dunfermline are expected to be the whipping boys of the division, having been promoted from the First Division last season, but St. Mirren and Inverness both look weak this year.

ABERDEEN

This season has all the makings of a season of transition for the Dons. In the summer they’ve lost their captain Paul Hartley, who has retired after persistent knee injuries, and defensive mainstay Zander Diamond, who opted to join League One Oldham after nine years at Pittodrie.

The Dons were on the receiving end of the SPL’s biggest-ever defeat last season as they were crushed 9-0 by Celtic – resulting in Mark McGhee losing his job. The Dons then snared Craig Brown from Motherwell and coupled with youngsters like Fraser Fyvie and Peter Pawlett – the future looks a lot brighter for Aberdeen.

KEY MAN: Youl Mawene – The Dons need someone to replace Diamond and, if the Frenchman can keep himself fit, he could be the prefect man for the job.

CELTIC

After losing out on the title on the last day, Lennon’s charges will be looking to go one better this season.

Main signing Victor Wanyama will add a lot of energy to the midfield and will be popular with fans after choosing the shirt number 67 – a tribute to the Celtic side that won the European Champions Club Cup in 1967.

Lennon is looking to add some more experience to his young team, but with a years added experience, the likes of Biram Kayal, Emilio Izaguirre and Gary Hooper should all be looking to push on after very impressive first seasons. Izaguirre’s form was supreme and Arsenal and Liverpool are rumoured to be looking at the Honduran full-back, who was named PFA Players’ Player of the Year.

KEY MAN: Gary Hooper – Hooper scored 21 goals last season, taking only 30 shots to do so. With more experience under his belt and an England U21 call-up, Hooper could be the key to firing Celtic back to the top of the SPL.

 DUNDEE UNITED

Despite the season starting early to help Scotland’s European participants, United went out on away goals against Polish team Slask Wroclaw last night.

However, manager Peter Houston was full of praise for the team: “If I get the same effort through the SPL season we’ll be back in Europe next season,” he said.

One big positive for United is they have somehow held on to main striker David Goodwillie. English interest was said to be big in Goodwillie, who Rangers are still sniffing around, and the striker will be a huge asset for United if they can still keep hold of him.

A positive for United is the acquisition of ex-Liverpool prospect Gary Mac-Kay Steven. The winger has great pace and can out in good crosser and Goodwillie and Jon Daly should find themselves attacking a lot of balls this season. He will need to have a good season as United have lost Craig Conway to Cardiff. Conway was integral to United’s European qualification and a massive part of the way they played.

United have also lost Morgaro Gomis to Birmingham and midfield partner Prince Buaben to Watford, so replacing these two will be crucial to Houston. Signing Willo Flood from Middlesbrough will help fill one void.

KEY MAN: David Goodwillie – Providing they can keep hold of him until the window shuts, Goodwillie will be the key man in firing Dundee United back towards the European berths.

DUNFERMLINE

The Pars are odds-on favourites to go straight back down again this season, but they have made some shrewd acquisitions this summer and will be looking to consolidate this season.

Nomadic goalkeeper Paul Gallacher and centre-back John Potter were both part of a St. Mirren team that last year avoided relegation and that experience could be crucial this year.

Andrew Barrowman will give them some much-needed firepower up front, and the ex-Birmingham trainee has SPL experience with Inverness.

But biggest key could be retaining the destructive services of Gary Mason in midfield. Mason has a plethora of SPL knowledge and his influence in the middle of the park will be huge if Dunfermline are to stay up.

KEY MAN: Gary Mason – The Pars are planning to cause a few surprises this year and Mason will be integral to how their season shapes up.

 HEART OF MIDLOTHIAN

It’s never quiet at Hearts, and this summer was no different. Firstly, midfielder Ian Black has been set a trial date for an accusation of possessing cocaine – the hearing will take place in October.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, Hearts also had to suspend promising full-back Craig Thomson after the 20-year-old was placed on the sex offenders list after pleading guilty to ‘lewd, libidinous and indecent behaviour’.

On the pitch, things haven’t been much better. Lee Wallace has left Edinburgh and joined champions Rangers.

However, they have managed to sign John Sutton from Motherwell and Kilmarnock’s inspirational Moroccan Mehdi Taouil, both on free transfers.

Reinvigorated by the appointment of Jim Jeffries, Hearts would march on to finish third last season as Kevin Kyle and Stephen Elliot terrorised SPL defences. Jeffries, who switched to a successful 4-2-3-1 system, seems to be able to restrain owner Vladimir Romanov’s unerring desire to get involved and that has so far worked wonders.

A season in Europe awaits, with a tie against Hungarian team Paksi next up, and it will be interesting to see how Jeffries juggles his side.

KEY MAN: David Templeton – The winger was a nightmare for full-backs from both flanks last year and his mazy runs and directness will be key this season too.

HIBERNIAN

The main talking point at Easter Road this summer has been about the manager, Colin Calderwood. Birmingham and Nottingham Forest have both expressed an interest in taking Calderwood on as their assistant manager and the former Spurs defender has hardly been vigorous in denying an interest.

The return of club icon Garry O’Connor was Hibs’ main piece of business this summer and an acquisition that should excite the clubs fans. However, Hibees have lost out to St. Johnstone in the race to sign former Celtic striker Cillian Sheridan after taking him on trial.

Easter Road will also be missing Derek Riordan this season after he agreed a deal with Chinese outfit Shaanxi Chanba.

Hibs fans will be desperate to see performances pick up this season. There was a time when Hibs were in danger of being relegated, a January upturn in form managed to save them, but losses at the end of the season to an already condemned Hamilton was a sharp reminder of what this season could hold for them.

KEY MAN: Colin Calderwood – Hibs have had nine managers since 1996 and the club is crying out for stability. They need to keep hold of him, get the best out of O’Connor and hope Paul Hanlon and Callum Booth can shore up the defence.

INVERNESS CT

Terry Butcher has worked nothing short of miracles since taking over at the Tulloch Caledonian Stadium, but faces an uphill struggle this season after losing a raft of players.

11 players have exited Caley in the close season, the biggest of those being Adam Rooney. The Irish striker scored 21 times last season and has earnt himself a move to Birmingham City – something I don’t think any Caley fans will begrudge him.

This loss has been offset by captures of young exciting winger Aaron Doran from Blackburn. The Irish youngster was on loan last season at Inverness and Butcher has secured his permanent services this summer. He is joined by Northampton’s Billy McKay who Butcher claims to have received “excellent reports” on. Gregory Tade has also joined from Raith Rovers, but the striker has a reputation for being inconsistent.

Butcher is livid with the early start date for this season’s SPL and has branded the decision “farcical”, whilst claiming that most squads in the league are “nowhere near complete”

KEY MAN: Gregory Tade – It wouldn’t be harsh to say that Caley’s hopes of remaining in this division rest firmly on his shoulders. Bought to replace Rooney, he needs to fill the Irishman’s boots very quickly to save Inverness.

KILMARNOCK

Killie find themselves in the same boat as many other clubs this summer. They’ve found themselves losing players on free transfers, and they seem to be all the key players.

Alexei Eremenko was up against Emilio Izaguirre for Player of the Year last season, but his loan has expired and he has returned to Metalist Kharkiv (where he has been told he can leave). To rub salt into Killie’s wounds, Celtic and Rangers are both said to be looking at the Finnish star.

Captain Craig Bryson has left to join Derby County, however, Killie managed to bag £350k for him. Taouil has joined Hearts on a free.

Kenny Shiels has therefore had to shop around on a small budget as he prepares for his first full season in charge. He snapped up Gary Harkins from Dundee and he will be tasked with filling Eremenko’s considerable absence after regular goal scoring seasons, albeit a division lower than this.

Danny Buijs has joined from ADO Den Haag and will be a fantastic acquisition to the middle of the park. A real battler he can be a driving force for Killie this season.

Paul Heffernan has joined and will try to replace Conor Sammon, who joined Wigan Athletic in January.

KEY MAN: Gary Harkins – A tough task for someone making the step-up in class, but Harkins has to try and replicate the effect Eremenko had on Killie.

MOTHERWELL

Motherwell were left in the mire last season after Craig Brown jumped ship and joined Aberdeen. Stuart McCall took over and managed to steady the ship.

His task has been made immediately harder by losing top-scorer John Sutton to Hearts, but he has compensated for that by bringing in Michael Higdon from St. Mirren. Higdon scored 14 goals in the league last year and Motherwell will be hoping he can replicate that form.

The main concern for McCall would be that his squad is only 23-men deep. A few injuries could really put pressure on the Well.

KEY MAN: Chris Humphrey – The pacy winger seemed to regain his best form under McCall last season and he is crucial to Motherwell this year. He’ll have Nicky Law breathing down his neck for a place but Humphrey needs to supply Higdon and Jamie Murphy with all the ammunition they need. If he does, Motherwell could find themselves in the European places.

RANGERS

It’s been a quiet off-season at Ibrox, which was unexpected after the takeover of the club by local businessman Craig Whyte. He promised Ally McCoist funds to strengthen and has been true to his word, yet he refuses to pay over the odds for players meaning only Lee Wallace and Juan Ortiz have joined the Gers.  Former fans favourite Carlos Cuellar is in talks with the Gers after having a £2m bid accepted by Aston Villa. However, McCoist has stated he wants the deal wrapped up quickly. Whyte’s shrewd approach meant the club missed out on Israeli striker Tomer Hemad.

On a good note, Steven Davis has signed a new deal at Ibrox and Kirk Broadfoot has returned after eight months out injured.

Alejandro Bedoya will join Rangers in January on a free transfer and the American should be an exciting prospect. St. Johnstone’s Murray Davidson has also been subject of a bid from rangers, but that has been rejected by his club.

KEY MAN: Ally McCoist – No task in Scottish football could be bigger than trying to succeed Walter Smith. A few more signings will be needed if McCoist is to challenge Celtic and juggle a European campaign too. Key to that will be Nikica Jelavic who has shown in his debut season he can tear apart any defence north of the border.

ST. JOHNSTONE

Losing Michael Duberry was surprisingly a blow to Derek McInnes’ team, but he has been replaced by Frazer Wright who should slot into the vacant spot comfortably.

Key player Murray Davidson is subject of a bid from Rangers and the former West Brom midfielder will be desperate to keep hold of Davidson. Another Davidson, Callum, has returned to the club from Preston and the penalty specialist will be looking to make the left-back spot his own after Danny Grainger joined Hearts.

David Robertson joins from Dundee United and he will bring some craft and attacking intent to the St. Johnstone midfield.

KEY MAN: Cillian Sheridan – Providing Murray Davidson stays, the Saints can look forward to consolidating for another year. However, to do this, goals will need to be scored. Carl Finnigan and Sean Higgins have been bought in, but neither have the pedigree to score a lot of goals – meaning Sheridan will be the main man.

ST. MIRREN

Losing Michael Higdon to Motherwell could be a really big blow to St. Mirren as he scored a huge percentage of their goals last season.

They have looked to replace Higdon by signing veteran Steven Thompson from Burnley, Nigel Hasselbaink from relegated Hamilton and by turning Paul McGowan’s loan move from Celtic into a permanent deal.

Gary Teale has been bought in to add some craft down the wings, but the Scotsman has lost the pace that made him so lethal in his younger days.

Dutch defender Jeroen Tesselaar has joined after impressing manager Danny Lennon whilst on trial.

He will compete down the left-side with Graham Carey who was allowed to leave Celtic despite having a year of his deal left.

St. Mirren avoided the drop only due to the ineptitude of Hamilton last season and will need to do better this year as Dunfermline don’t look set to prop up the table.

KEY MEN: Lee Mair & Steven Thompson – A -24 goal difference was dangerous last season so both ends need improving this season. Lee Mair is vice-captain and needs to show organisation, desire and leadership at the back. Thompson will be the most experienced of St. Mirren’s forwards and he still has the ability to bag goals at this level. He will be useful for Danny Lennon’s team both in the air and on the deck.

SEASON PREDICTIONS

WINNER – CELTIC – McCoist’s first season in charge, coupled with a slow summer means Celtic should pip them to the title this season. Providing Lennon can keep hold of Izaguirre, Kayal and Hooper before the English transfer window closes they should have too much this season, especially with an extra year’s experience under their belts.

RUNNERS-UP – RANGERS – Nothing should stop the usual two-horse dominance of the SPL.

EUROPA LEAGUE – HEARTS, MOTHERWELL – Dundee United have lost too many players this summer to make a charge again. Hearts should cruise to third spot, leaving 4th up for grabs. A big season from Jamie Murphy and Michael Higdon should ensure enough goals to finish in the last Europa League place.

TOP SCORER – GARY HOOPER – Hooper scored 21 goals from 30 shots last season, showing his deadly finishing prowess. If Celtic can get him the service, he is guaranteed to score goals.

RELEGATED – ST.MIRREN – They will be pushed hard by Inverness this season, but St. Mirren are my tip to go down. They nearly went last season and have lost their top scorer.