The Scottish Premiership returns this weekend and it’s fair to say you’ll be hard pushed to find anyone who doesn’t fancy Rangers to retain the title.
Even the most optimistic of Celtic supporters would admit their team are currently a long way from putting in a real title challenge.
Steven Gerrard’s side won their first top-flight title in 10 years last season and they did so in emphatic fashion with a 25-point margin over rivals Celtic, and I expect them to make it two in a row.
The league itself will see Scotland’s six historically biggest clubs reunited back in the top flight for the first time since 2012. Rangers, Celtic, Hibernian, Hearts, Aberdeen and Dundee United will make the league the most competitive it’s been for a long time. With that brings excitement and great anticipation.
This season’s title will be one of the richest in the history of Scottish football with the winners guaranteed a place in the Champions League group stages next season and the £30m-plus that goes with it. That is a staggering amount of money in Scottish football terms and the board of directors at both Rangers and Celtic must have an eye on what could be.
While Celtic continue to toil in the transfer market, coupled with their Champions League exit to Midtjylland on Wednesday night, Rangers have stolen a march and have prudently got on with their job.
Rangers boss Gerrard and head of football operations Ross Wilson have been quite selective in their recruitment this summer. Fashion Sakala, who was impressive on his first start and scored his first goal last weekend in the win against Real Madrid, is evidence of that.
Rangers wanted pace in their front line and a player who can play anywhere in the attacking area and if Sakala’s first appearance is anything to go by, they may have solved that problem. He’s raw in aspects of his game and Gerrard described it perfectly after the match when he said: “We need to polish the diamond”. That says it all.
Physical presence in midfield was another aim of the club and in John Lundstram they look to have covered that base. He’s a man with good Premier League experience in England and his attributes complement the strengths of Steven Davis, Scott Arfield, Glen Kamara, Joe Aribo and Ianis Hagi. Technically he looks as if he can handle the ball but he likes to mix his game up and is more than forceful in the tackle, which is just what Rangers needed.
Both players were brought in without a transfer fee paid out so that tells you how far ahead they look and have a settled system.
With the attacking talent of Kemar Roofe, Sakala, Scott Wright, Ryan Kent, Cedric Itten as well as Alfredo Morelos still to return to the fold, you have to say it’s an impressive array of quality and goal threat. The options and continuity within that area of the pitch will give Gerrard a lot of comfort.
Continuity isn’t a word you would associate with Rangers’ biggest title rivals Celtic. Ange Postecoglou is still trying to patch up a squad that has been allowed to fall into disarray over the past year. The position the team is in is due to the board stalling in their efforts to get the new manager in and the time it took.
Postecoglou is fighting fires and looks completely disillusioned at times when asked about recruitment and the time it is taking to get new signings over the line. Scrambling about looking for players this late in the summer shows a lack of preparation and planning. They are a work in progress and it could take two or three transfer windows to tidy the current mess up, Postecoglou can only hope he’s given time to do the job properly.
Exiting the Champions League qualifiers is a huge blow, financially and in football terms, to the club so it will be interesting to see how the squad reacts to that setback and how Postecoglou can pick his players up.
Pushing Celtic for that second-place finish I suspect will be Aberdeen and Hibernian. Hibs have a bit more cohesion from last season and are the team who I feel can give Celtic the biggest challenge.
Jack Ross’ side, who finished third last season, have so far managed to keep hold of their exciting young players Josh Doig, Ryan Porteous and recently-capped Scotland player Kevin Nisbet. Time will tell whether they can do so beyond the transfer window so the dynamic could change as clubs south of the border are hovering and watching how their progress in European football goes.
Aberdeen manager Stephen Glass added plenty of experience to his squad over the summer with ex-Celtic captain Scott Brown the stand-out addition. How Celtic could do with his experience and leadership in their ranks but it’s Aberdeen who will benefit from it.
Northern Ireland international Niall McGinn looks like he will have a limited part to play at Pittodrie this season but you can never have too much experience and creativity.
Outside the top four, I expect Hearts to have a big season on their return to the Premiership. Liam Boyce will lead their challenge and manager Robbie Neilson will be heavily reliant on his goals as well as the experience and versatility of Michael Smith.
Ex-Rangers midfielder Andy Halliday will have a big part to play, as the Hearts fans will demand a top-six finish.
St Johnstone, who had an incredible season last time out with a cup double, will want to maintain their impressive form. A bonus for manager Callum Davidson is keeping hold of the sought-after Ali McCann.
He will eventually leave the club as his progression over the past 12 months has been great to watch but with a double-header in the Europa Conference League against Galatasaray to come, it will be great for his development .
It’s hard to pick this early on who will be relegation favourites as it usually takes a round of fixtures to see how the land lies. Motherwell and Ross County have work to do on their playing staff and Livingston have lost a few big players, so all three will need to get off to a strong start.
It always brings a headline and a story as well as the unexpected. There are conspiracy theorists, fallouts and finger-pointing but plenty of passion, so sit back and enjoy another season of Scottish Premiership football!