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November 9, 2010

First quarter report card

Posted by Darrell Currie on 09/11/2010

Kenny Miller has been in prolific form this season for Rangers © Getty Images

So here we are after 11 games, all the SPL teams have now played each other, and it’s time to reflect on the early season title race, ahead of Wednesday’s big match on ESPN - Hearts v Celtic. It should be a cracker.

Right, let’s start at the top - Rangers. Things could hardly have gone any better for Walter Smith’s side and Sunday’s victory at St Mirren Park on ESPN put the Gers back on top of the table. Only one slip up to date (a home draw with Inverness) has Rangers ahead of Celtic by one point. The question remains though - do Rangers have the stamina to stay there? Kenny Miller recently said fatigue won’t be an issue, but I’m not so sure. On Sunday in Paisley, Rangers looked lethargic, even though they had some time to recover after their match with Valencia, they still looked leggy - Craig Burley said just that when commentating at the weekend.

Rangers have a small squad and Walter Smith knows it. The problem is he can’t afford to try the youngsters out too much as Celtic are keeping the pressure on. At the start of the season Smith said the young talent would have to contribute - so far (apart from in the League Cup) that hasn’t been the case. Steven Naismith and Kenny Miller have kept Rangers on top, with excellence in midfield from Steven Davis in particular, but more players will have to step up if Rangers are to continue on their incredible point-grabbing pace.

Vladimir Weiss started with a bang, but of late (albeit he has had a heel injury) he’s been a little disappointing. He will need to get back to the form he showed at Easter Road some weeks ago. John Fleck could be a key man for Rangers as well. He’s been unlucky with injuries so far, but his trickery can unlock defences just as Weiss’ can. Those wide men can add more dynamism to Rangers’ play. Up front more help is needed too if the Gers are to keep winning. I was impressed by Kyle Lafferty’s work-rate last weekend at St Mirren, he changed the game when he came on at half-time. He looks ready to start from the first minute now - and he can score goals.

With Beattie and Jelavic (the major summer recruits) both ailing on the sidelines the Northern Irish forward finally has a chance to become an Ibrox hero - a status he’s not really come close to achieving yet. Rangers undoubtedly have a strong starting XI, but it’s strength in-depth that they don’t have. Keeping players fit is important of course, but getting more players to contribute is even more vital. That would take some of the pressure off red-hot Kenny Miller and Steven Naismith.

Rangers’ defining moment so far is of course the win at Parkhead. It suggested to me that they are a very strong cohesive unit, but that it is not the game that will decide the league - it’s more likely to be the last Old Firm game of the season that will be the decider in my view.

So that takes me on to Celtic. They have kept pace brilliantly at the top with Rangers, and the only blot on their copy book is the defeat by the Gers at Celtic Park; that is their only blot in the SPL anyway, in Europe they were shocking in Utrecht. That poor European night aside, I’ve been really impressed by the progress Neil Lennon’s men are making. Let’s make one thing clear - while there’s a chance Rangers will suffer from having a small squad, Celtic will only get stronger as their many new players learn how to play with each other more effectively.

Up front there are signs Anthony Stokes and Gary Hooper can be a deadly strike partnership (just ask Aberdeen). There has been a suggestion they can become the new Larsson/Sutton double-act - but I think that’s a grossly exaggerated expectation. They won’t be that good, but they will be crucial this season. Hooper reminds me a bit of Scott McDonald in that he has a low centre of gravity, allowing him to instinctively turn in the box, find some space and find the net. He was a shrewd acquisition.

South Korean Ki is a classy player as well, but he wasn’t strong enough in the Old Firm game and he’ll have to learn from that. The defence has also been a problem for Celtic at times this season (despite the fact they haven’t conceded that many goals) and that needs sorting out. Glenn Loovens has been ousted by Thomas Rogne recently, and with good effect, but Rogne is inexperienced and the big Swedish international Daniel Majstorovic will need to be a calming influence on his fellow Scandinavian. At the same time though Majstorovic also has to be consistent - I’ve seen him look like a rock one week, and a stone the next.

So what does all this add up to? Really I’m not sure, but this is a vital few weeks in the title race that’s for sure - and you can follow it all on ESPN. Check our schedules, we have Rangers and Celtic live over and over again in the coming weeks, and we’re loaded with Old Firm fixtures all the way over the Christmas period as well.

Next up is Hearts v Celtic on Wednesday and it’ll be as tough a test as Neil Lennon’s side have had (not counting the game against Rangers). Hearts won the Edinburgh derby, and I think they have the players to be the best club outside the Old Firm this season. I just mentioned the Celtic defence - well they will have to be strong against the likes of Kevin Kyle this midweek. Celtic lost in their only meaningful visit to Tynecastle last season and that day the Jambos took advantage of poor Celtic finishing and poor defending. Celtic are far stronger now than they were back then under Tony Mowbray, but still this is a tough fixture to predict. One thing’s for sure though – these next few games on ESPN are going to be crucial, and matches like this one on Wednesday will be huge in terms of the final destination of the SPL trophy.

To sum all this up then - perhaps it’s a battle between stamina and progression, with vital questions still without answers. Can Celtic improve enough to keep the pressure on? Can Rangers keep fighting at home and abroad? We’ll find out soon enough. Then again there is also another small factor in this mind-boggling equation – it’s Walter Smith’s final season in charge of Rangers – so perhaps there’s a touch of fate involved here.

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