Saturday, 22 January 2011

Five Stars of the future from Murray Park

At a time when a black financial cloud hangs over the inspiring façade on Edmiston Drive, a beam of hope comes from the Murray Park training complex in the outskirts of Glasgow.

Rangers opened their £14m state-of-the-art training complex in July 2001 and the manager at the time Dick Advocaat and his youth supremo Jan Derks had a massive say in the construction of the facility. The centre sits in a 38-acre site in Auchenhowie, Milngavie, and was one of the most advanced training centres in Europe when officially opened nearly 10 years ago. The complex boasts six full size pitches, two half size pitches, a practice area, an indoor pitch and a training centre which has some of the most advanced pieces of Sports Science and gym equipment in the UK.

What has to be emphasized is that Murray Park is not a youth academy but a purpose-built training facility.

However, its effect on the development of young players at Rangers is clear for all to see in recent years. Tottenham right-back Alan Hutton is one of those players who developed at Murray Park. Hutton netted Rangers £9m in January 2008 and made his debut in a Rangers side full of international stars at 18 years old.

Steven Smith burst on to the scene in 2005 under Alex McLeish and made his Champions League debut at 20. Smith’s Rangers career was hampered by unfortunate injuries but his form under Paul Le Guen was one of the only success stories of that season. He was a regular in the side and was one of the hottest properties in Scottish Football. However, recurring injuries were a serious problem for Smith and he was never able to reach the heights of 06/07 in his later years at Ibrox. It was a story of what could have been.

The facility also had a major impact on the development of Chris Burke and Ross McCormack who are now playing their football in the Football League but both had impacts in the Champions League and were another tale of what could have been.

The class of 2011 are already growing upon the Ibrox faithful and with such a threadbare squad, there has never been a better time to make your mark at Rangers. There are 5 stars around the famous Rangers crest which symbolise the 53 League Championships won by the club and there are 5 new stars emerging from the Rangers youth teams.

Midfield duo Kyle Hutton and Jamie Ness have burst on to the scene this season and both have played a part in some of Rangers’ biggest fixtures this season. Hutton made several sub appearances in the SPL before a surprise start against Manchester United in the Champions League and he never looked out of place. His U19 team-mate Jamie Ness had to wait for his senior debut due to injury but started in the Old Firm derby of January 2nd and came out with pass marks in a terrible team performance that day.

Hutton is the more defensive of the two and is very comfortable at picking the ball up from deep. Ness on the other hand is more industrious and covers a huge amount of ground each game but his best asset is by far is wonderful left-foot and his impressive range of passing.

Attacking midfielder John Fleck has been around for some time after making his senior debut back in 2008. Fleck became the youngest player to appear in a British Cup Final when he made a late sub-appearance in the 3-2 Scottish Cup Final win over Queen of the South. Fleck was tagged early on as ‘the next Rooney’ and was under severe pressure by media and some sections of the supporters to deliver quickly. It looked like Fleck was set to have a big part to play this season and after an excellent pre-season, picked up a hamstring tear in a friendly to Clyde which effectively ruled him out for a month or so. The 19-year-old is naturally most comfortable as a second-striker or attacking midfielder. He is technically very sound and is capable of creativity which can unlock stubborn defences. Time is very much on Fleck’s side and with Kenny Miller now a Bursaspor player, the youngster could make that position his own in the future.

Gregg Wylde is one of the Murray Park youngsters who have grown on the Rangers supporters any time he has taken the field. Wylde featured mainly at left full-back for the U19s but is more comfortable as an old-fashioned left-winger. The 19-year-old prefers to use his excellent pace over any skill and reaches the by line fairly often. That is useful but more importantly, Wylde has a final ball and has created numerous chances in his cameo-appearances so far in his career. He is potentially one of the last of a dying breed of wide-players and could be the next to try to hold down a shirt in what has been a problem role for Rangers in the last decade.

Walter Smith took the opportunity to hand Darren Cole his Rangers debut against Bursaspor in the Champions League with the Ibrox side already heading into the Europa League. Cole is comfortable at centre-back and full-back and he started that match at right-back for the first-team. The 19-year-old impressed in the intimidating atmosphere of a Turkish stadium and got subsequent praise from his manager. He has yet to play in the Scottish Premier League but his performance in Turkey has certainly put his name on the list of players to replace Whittaker or Foster if they pick up injuries.

The financial situation at Ibrox is well-documented and the mis-management of the club by Sir David Murray has resulted in extensive pressure from the Lloyds banking group to recoup £20m-£25m worth of debt. Most Rangers fans naively still treat Murray as a god, but the 2 years without signing a player and the inability to withstand any decent offer for a player should have been a wake-up call, if they had not realised the damage Murray was causing.

A takeover was on the cards, or it could in fact be another Murray moonbeam, but with the future uncertain off the pitch, Rangers fans can be encouraged by the new breed of talent which may save the club a fair few pounds in the next few years.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Bosman 11 of 2011

With clubs cautious about opening their cheque-books, the bosman market might be the popular route this coming summer.

Here's my bosman 11:

1. Timo Hildebrand (Sporting Lisbon) - The 31-year-old German broke on to the scene with VFB Stuttgart and he was one of the most saught after goalkeepers whilst in Germany. A move to Valencia did not go as well as planned but Hildebrand revived his career for 2 years at Hoffenheim and is now Sporting's backup goalkeeper.

2. Lucas Neill (Galatasaray) - The experienced Australian signed an 18-month contract with the Turkish giants last season and joined up with fellow Aussie Harry Kewell, who is also available on a bosman. Neill has also had spells at Blackburn, West Ham and Everton and at 32 would certainly do a job back in the Premiership next season.

3. Oscar Wendt (FC Copenhagen) - Copenhagen's first choice left-back is very highly-rated in Denmark and Chelsea fans will see more of the Swede when they lock horns in the Champions League. The 25-year-old is reportedly being chased by Benfica and a number of German sides.

4. Joseph Yobo (Everton/Fenerbahce) - Yobo is currently on loan at Fenerbahce after falling out of favour at Goodison Park. The Nigerian has done well in Turkey and has held down a regular shirt so far this season. With 75 caps for Nigeria his experience could be valuable for any European club.

5. Gokhan Zan (Galatasaray) - Gokhan Zan is someone who I remember from Euro 2008 where he was a stand-out in one of Turkey's games. The 29-year-old looked the part and was a regular at Besiktas before moving to Galatasaray a year later. His time at Galatasaray has not been great and it is unlikely that he would be offered a new contract.

6. Gilberto (Panathinaikos) - At 34, Gilberto might be tempted back to Brazil in the summer when his contract runs out in Athens. Gilberto was a key part of the Arsenal 'invincible' team and made over 100 appearances for the Gunners.

7. Zoltan Gera (Fulham) - Gera is a crucial part of a very talented Hungarian national side and his wealth of experience is crucial in a young squad. The 31-year-old was a star man in Fulham's Europa League campaign last season and is still capable of playing at the top level. A very under-rated player in my view.

8. Alex (Fenerbahce) - Fenerbahce's number 10 has excelled since arriving in Istanbul in 2004 and is now their captain. Alex has also featured a number of times for the Brazilian national team and could also be tempted back to Brazil in the summer when his deal runs out.

9. Johan Elmander (Bolton) - Under Owen Coyle, Elmander has been given a new lease of life following a relatively unsuccessful spell at the Reebok. He joined Bolton in 2008 after a good spell at Toulouse. The 29-year-old is a regular in the Swedish national team and could be tempted to stay at Bolton due to Coyle's presence. Could do a job for most top sides.

10. Ibrahim Yattara (Trabzonspor) - With Trabzonspor leading the way in the SuperLig, the 30-year-old Guinean midfielder has been oustanding so far this season. Easily one of the best players in Turkey, this could be a potential scoup for any club at the end of the season.

11. Alan (Braga) - Alan played a huge part in Braga's excellent form last season. He joined Braga in 2008 and at 31 impressed in their Champions League games this season. Like the other two Brazilians in my 11, he could be tempted by a move back to Brazil in the summer.

Hope that was not the most boring 5 minutes of your life.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Summer Football: The Future?

The horrific weather conditions of mid-December are probably a distant memory for the majority of people in the UK and the almost Armageddon-like images of deserted motorways will be something to reflect on in winter 2011.

From a personal point of view, trekking for 5 hours along an empty dual-carriageway is something I will certainly not be doing again!

We should just shut down completely in the winter. Close the shops except the 24-hour ASDA and let's just hibernate, or better still go on holiday, for the winter months.

No more school. No more college. No more work and how about no more football?

Strangely enough, the concept of not playing football in the time when the country is battered by snow and rain has yet to take off in the UK. The winter calendar was hit especially hard in Scotland with over 70 postponements throughout the SPL and SFL in the month of December. Games at the top level were called off for burst pipes due to the thaw and games at the bottom were called off because of failing undersoil heating. This year's farcical football calendar is not a new thing in Scottish Football and over the past few years fixture pile-ups seems to be the norm.

The effect of the winter weather in most European countries is not felt as much as it is in the UK with the majority of leagues packing up in December and having a much-needed winter shutdown. It was well-documented that the winter break might have had a positive effect on the German national team during the World Cup with so many players in the Bundesliga. This sparked much debate in England about the positive impacts of introducing a winter break and this was echoed by Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson.

How about an even more radical change to European football by playing through the summer months?

German legend Rudi Voller said: "Of the 34 match days of the current season, you're 'frozen' during 20 of them."

His thoughts were backed by Holger Hieronymus, managing director of the German football league (DFL). He said: "I think it's feasible. When we have the chance to improve something, we can at least discuss it, but such a reform cannot be decided by Germany alone."

Rangers manager Walter Smith is also a supporter of a move to summer football but for different reasons. He said: "We need to look at moving the season forward. It is something that would help our clubs in terms of preparation for these early European games. I feel a little bit sorry for the two clubs who were involved last night as they both have new managers who are just in the door."

Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Ireland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Faroe Islands and Iceland have all implemented summer football into their calendars. With a potential winter world cup in 2022, will that give the super-powers of European football the chance to consider a summer calendar?

The debate about summer football in Scotland is something which pops up on a regular occurrence whenever games become postponed due to the weather. There is a growing call for summer football in Scottish Football and with the youth season adapting to the summer calendar then it might not be far off for the professional game. Scottish teams are regularly dumped out early in Europe to teams from countries with summer football and this change has been echoed by Henry McLeish who is apparently going to save Scottish football with his revolutionary report.

It is baffling how those against summer football can still enjoy a midweek trip to Dingwall or Inverness during the winter? - That's if the game would even go ahead!

Summer football is worth considering for Scotland and for European football.

Granted, those in Southern Europe might not be caring as they get good weather all year round but us unfortunate to be in Northern Europe might see Summer Football as a future change to the football calendar. Would those in England, Holland, Belgium, and Germany be opposed to summer football?

It would be fantastic to see Scottish Football able to work alongside the rest of Europe who are in warmer climates but unless we have a lengthy winter break then I don't think that is possible. I don't think the idea of summer football will take off generally unless England and others in Europe were to follow suit.

It is time to do what's best for Scottish Football, the fans, the youth players and for the future of our game. If you want to join us Europe, then your more than welcome.

Anyway, it will be scarf, hat, gloves, snood and furry jacket for me tomorrow.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Huistra Dreaming Of Inspired Finish To Eredivisie Title Race

With the Dutch Eredivisie now at the halfway mark, FC Groningen have their sights set on becoming the fifth different title winner in the past 10 years.

43-year-old Pieter Huistra, formally of Rangers in the 90s, was thrown into the deep end in the summer when he was appointed Groningen's new manager to replace Ron Jans. Huistra's previous coaching experience was mainly at youth level with Groningen and Ajax before a one-year stint in charge of the Ajax B side.

You would struggle to find anyone who would have tipped Huistra to have such a positive impact at Groningen with such little managerial experience but the new manager has excelled in his role and led his side to 3rd place at the start of the winter shutdown.

FC Groningen's investment into scouting has paid dividends on the pitch with some talented players gracing the field at the Euroborg stadium. Serbian winger Dusan Tadic has been one of the finds of the season in European football and the 22-year-old, who joined from Vojvodina for £1.5m, quickly established himself as the first name on the teamsheet for Groningen.

Another impressive player from the Balkans has been Slovenian striker Tim Matavz who has 10 goals in the Eredivisie this season. Matavz is an established international at just 22 and has attracted the attention of a number of bigger clubs.

Groningen's extensive scouting also reaches to Scandinavia with a number of players from that region. Swedish defender Fredrik Stenman joined from Leverkusen and is a regular at full-back for Groningen. Former Wigan defender Andreas Granqvist is a key component of the Groningen defence. The squad also contains Finnish youngster Tim Sparv and another 2 Danish internationals in Nicklas Pedersen and Thomas Enevoldsen.

Their record so far this season against the bigger clubs in Dutch Football is fairly impressive. Groningen opened their Eredivisie account with a respectable 2-2 home draw with Ajax before a 1-1 away draw with AZ Alkmaar the week after. Groningen continued their good run of form against away to PSV with another draw but were turned over by champions FC Twente 4-2 in October. Groningen defeated Feyenoord 2-0 in late November and in their second-last game before the winter break, AZ Alkmaar were defeated 2-0 as well in front of nearly 22,000 fanatical fans.

Groningen have had mixed fortunes over the past 30 years with a few stints in the Dutch 2nd Division. But times seem to have changed and former manager Ron Jans, who was in charge for 8 years, led Groningen to an excellent 5th place in 2006 meaning entry into European football for next season. Their venture into the UEFA Cup saw them locking horns with Serie A side Fiorentina and the Dutch cracks impressed over the two-legs but were knocked out on penalties following a 2-2 draw on aggregate.

Huistra and the current crop are on the verge of something special at FC Groningen who are just four points behind league-leaders PSV Eindhoven and are joint-second with FC Twente. A place in the Champions League would be something of a dream for FC Groningen but there never has been a better time to win the Eredivisie and this could be their unique opportunity for major domestic success.

The continued dominance of Dutch Football was turned on its head when AZ Alkmaar won just their second Dutch title in 2008-2009 and followed by Steve McClaren's FC Twente fairytale which was their first ever Dutch championship.

Is the stage set for the Green & White army?

Sunday, 9 January 2011

A New Decade Brings Fresh Challenges For Cim Bom

It has been a fairly mixed decade for Galatasaray and in recent years the instability and changes in the balance of power in Turkish Football has been painful viewing for even the most loyal of fans.

The next decade will present a number of new challenges to Cim Bom with the club suffering from the reckless spending of the late 90s. Galatasaray will move to a new 53,000 all-seater stadium which will see the end of their days at the symbolic Ali Sami Yen which the club played in for over 30 years. With the Turkish government keen on hosting an International football tournament, Galatasaray have been one of the clubs to reap rewards from a number of new modern stadiums being built across the country. The naming rights were sold to Turk Telecom for over £10m over 10 years and extra investment will be made through areas of the purchased land being sold off to other Turkish companies.

The area around the ground has been renamed to Aslantepe which means 'Lion Hill' with the Lion being the symbol of Galatasaray.

A wind of change has swept through Turkish football in the last few seasons. In 52 years of the Turkish SuperLig, only four teams had ever won the competition with the trophy moving back-and-forth between the three dominant Istanbul clubs. The only team to upset that dominance was Trabzonspor who enjoyed excellent success in the late 70s and early 80s where they picked up 6 SuperLig crowns.

The balance of power shifted even further when Sivasspor finished just 5 points behind Besiktas in the 2008-2009 season. Finally, a fifth team would get its hands on the SuperLig trophy when Bursaspor came from absolutely nowhere to win the league on a pulsating final day decider between Bursaspor and Fenerbahce. 'The Green Crocodiles' from Turkey's fourth largest city defied all the odds under Ertugul Saglam to beat Besiktas 2-1 on the final day to become just the second side from outside Istanbul to become champions.

This season has been one to forget so far for Galatasaray and they sit in an embarrassing 9th position with just seven victories all season. Chairman Adnan Polat was forced into sacking Frank Rijkaard after significant pressure from supporters following a home defeat to Ankaragucu. Gheorghe Hagi, the greatest foreigner to play in Turkish football, was Rijkaard's successor and signed an 18-month contract in October. The appointment got an instant reaction from the Galatasaray players who achieved a respectable draw away to bitter rivals Fenerbahce just 48 hours later. The positive impact of Hagi's appointment did not last long with two defeats in just 3 days against Trabzonspor and Manisaspor. The former currently lead the SuperLig by 5 points at the halfway stage with Buraspor their closest challengers. Kayserispor have been the surprise packages of the season with Shota Arveladze guiding them to fourth position in the table.

The debts of Galatasaray are one of the highest in Turkish Football but according to chairman Adnan Polat, the debt is of a 'manageable size within the SuperLig'. When vying for the votes of club members to become chairman, his rival candidate Adnan Ozturk criticised Polat's financial management and claimed that Cim Bom were in over £200m worth of debt back in December 2009 and that the club was losing substantial amounts of money under Polat's term as chairman.

Ozturk said: “When we announced our candidacy, the management announced that they would not sell Riva. And with that, we saw one result of our candidacy. We do not plan on selling one square meter of Galatasaray land. The club lost $135 million in two years. We need to cut waste without preventing sportive success.”

Only last month, the company who deal with the commercial operations of Galatasaray's football team were slapped with a tax bill of around £30m. Current chairman of Galatasaray Adnan Polat was chairman of Galatasaray Sport and Football Management A.Ş for four years.

The 'Gheorghe Hagi Revolution' will move up a gear as the January transfer window allows the Turkish giants to flex their financial muscles in hope that they can improve on their current league position. The bar was set early by rivals Besiktas who added a trio of Portuguse stars to their squad early in the month. Simao signed for £7m and a penned two-and-a-half year deal with Besiktas. He was joined by Hugo Almeida who cost around £2m from Werder Bremen and Manuel Fernandes joined from Valencia on a loan deal. Hagi has added 2 new players so far in Colin Kazim Richards from Fenerbahce and Juan Culio from Romanian side Cluj who joined in a £2.5m deal.

Hagi's return has proved a popular one within Aslanlar and alongside assistant Tugay Kerimoglu they have set their sights on a Europa League position this season with long-term aims of securing the number one position in Turkish Football. From a sensational treble win under Fatih Terim in 99/00 and dominance under Mircea Lucescu to woeful league finishes such as 6th in 2004, 5th in 2009 and the 9th position this season has made supporting Galatasaray seem like an endless roller coaster through the past 10 years.

The end of an era will come on Tuesday 11th January 2011 when Galatasaray will take to the field for the final time at the Ali Sami Yen before moving to their new ground later in the month.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Whyte Waits On Murray, But Takeover Still Likely

The BBC website is today carrying a story that prospective owner Craig Whyte is hopeful of taking over the club in January. Journalist Alasdair Lamont has published a story this afternoon that contains no quotes, but is strong in it's belief that Whyte has said he is aiming to takeover the club sometime in January - probably towards the end of the month now. Crucially, this end of month deadline would mean that Smith could potentially be given funds from new ownership to utilise in the transfer window.

The article on the BBC site, said the following, "Craig Whyte remains hopeful of concluding his proposed takeover of Rangers before the end of January. Whyte has been in negotiations with the current owner Sir David Murray since the middle of November."

"He had initially hoped to complete a £33m deal before Christmas, but due diligence has taken longer than the Scottish businessman expected. However, if that can be concluded soon, Whyte aims to take over in time to help Walter Smith strengthen his squad."

Continuing, the article then points to the fact that Whyte has been waiting to hear back from current owner Sir David Murray over a couple of queries he has on several issues before he can move forward with his bid.

"Whyte considers the matter to be largely in Murray's hands at this stage, with Whyte's lawyers and accountants awaiting responses to a number of queries from the current owner. He expects that following a period of relative inactivity over the festive period, which he found frustrating, the pace of negotiations will now pick up."

The timing of this article is impeccable as only last night and today, news has broken with Walter Smith lamenting the lack of funds he has to work with to shore up the creaking Rangers squad.

Whyte clearly sees this as an issue for the club, that manager Smith cannot accentuate the squad, so he will hopefully hasten his attempts to gain control of the club as it would rid the club of the burden of Lloyds holding all the aces in terms of the clubs finances. The financial freedom that would be afforded the club with no debt would be fantastic for the manager, meaning first and foremost that any player sales would need to be sciphone off to go towards servicing the clubs debt.

The lack of quotes is perhaps the only worrying thing about the article, however the BBC are usually spot on when it comes to their sources. Nevertheless, the fact that Whyte would be subject to different laws and regulations as he is engaged in a takeover means that he would probably not be allowed to be directly quoted.

Very, interesting times for Rangers.

Rab Boyle/therabbitt is News Editor and Administrator for the fantastic site Rangers Media which has all the latest Rangers news and some excellent discussion on its forums.

His blog:

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Give Us Our Game Back, Please?

Representatives from all Scottish Premier League clubs today met at Hampden Park to discuss the prospect of League Reconstruction. It was evident quite quickly that most clubs favoured a change in the SPL structure.

Henry McLeish's Football Review has recommended that the SPL move to a two-tier top flight of 10 clubs which would see all SFL clubs move under the SPL's rule. McLeish recommends a 10-team setup for the lucrative financial reasons and the cushioning payments for relegation positions for SPL1 and SPL2. Today, the 12 member clubs moved a step-forward to agreeing on the structure recommended by McLeish.

However, the new changes could be met by strong opposition from supporters in the SPL who are against the move to a 10-team SPL. A Supporters Direct poll which was answered by nearly 5,000 fans showed that 88% opposed the move to a 10 or 12 league and 77% favoured a 16 or 18 team league.

Are the SPL and fans on a head-on collision course with regards to League Reconstruction?

It would appear a 16-team league, my personal choice, has been wiped off the table completely for financial reasons. That would only leave an extension in 14 or 18 clubs and surely 18 clubs would only dilute the quality of teams within the SPL for a few years. At least with 16 teams, you would have a fluid and competitive promotion and relegation between your SPL and First Division.

Clubs like Dundee, Livingston, Airdrie and Clyde are dying on their feet in the current climate and these clubs have decent fanbases and infrastructure suitable for the SPL.

A 16-team league will provide a large variety of local derbies which will bring the fans out for sure. Two Old Firm, Two Edinburgh, Two Dundee, Two Ayrshire, Two Highland & Two Fife derbies in a 16-team SPL compared with Four Old Firm and Four Edinburgh in the 12-team SPL currently?

Even now in a 12-team SPL, the four Old Firm games a season are nowhere near as significant as they used to be. After losing Sunday's Old Firm match, Rangers can get one over on their rivals next month. Derbies should be a unique occasion in the season and a step to a 10-team league would take away the significance of a derby with four of them a season.

In the coming month, Hearts will take on Rangers twice and will play Celtic at the end of the month. That is 9 points available to Hearts is putting pressure on the Old Firm and potentially are the biggest games this season. That's excitement. That's competition. That's what the fans want!

Scottish Football will never be able to compete on a European level unless we have a major overhaul of youth football and Scottish Football becomes a conveyor belt for young talent in the SPL. Instead of clubs spending millions on average squad players, focus should be on bringing through youth players and giving them a chance in the first-team.

It's simple. The fans are being shafted. We don't want Scottish Football like 10 years ago with high debts that are unsustainable in such a small country.

We want our f****** game back!

Monday, 3 January 2011

Next Month Is Crucial In SPL Title Race

The momentum in the SPL title race has swung in Celtic's favour after a 2-0 win at Ibrox in Sunday's Old Firm derby. In a fairly 'non-event' match, Georgios Samaras capitalised on two defensive errors from Rangers to net his first two SPL goals of the season in the Celtic victory.

Rangers had gone into the game full of confidence and belief after their 3-1 derby win earlier in the season but a dreadful performance from the home side will leave manager Walter Smith pondering any changes over the next few games. The only positive light for the SPL champions was the performance of 19-year-old Jamie Ness who made a impressive start on his Old Firm debut.

Celtic's game plan from the off was fairly straight-forward and looked the more hungrier side to win the game. One interesting point from the Celtic performance was the 'pressing in packs' when Rangers were in possession of the ball. It could have arguably been a deciding factor in the way the game was panning out as Rangers rarely pressed the game and were forced incredibly deep at times. When Vladimir Weiss received the ball, Mark Wilson, James Forrest and usually a central-midfielder would immediately press him to stop the Rangers attacks. Compare that with a sluggish Rangers midfield, with the exception of Jamie Ness who put in a good shift, who did not press Celtic's midfield or full-backs whenever they got forward.

With over a month to go until the SPL's 'big-two' lock horns in the next Old Firm derby, both sides will be looking for a consistent run of form to break clear at the top of the table. Rangers will take another break from the Scottish Premier League for nearly a fortnight with a Scottish cup match against Kilmarnock next Monday evening. When SPL matters do resume, Rangers have a home double-header against Hamilton and St Mirren before two visits to the capital to take on Hearts and Hibs. Hearts will then pay a visit to Ibrox before Motherwell are the last team to take on the Champions before the February 20th Old Firm match. It is a huge run of games for Rangers and with just 2 points separating third-placed Hearts from Rangers, the 6 points available for either side could have a massive bearing on the last charge for the Championship.

Celtic's title credentials will be tested to the limit when they face a few fairly difficult matches in the next month. Cup business is on the calendar for this weekend with Celtic taking on Berwick Rangers away from home. The following Wednesday, Celtic will have played another game in the SPL more than Rangers after their trip to Hamilton. Neil Lennon's men then take on Hibs at Easter Road before a rejuvenated Aberdeen visit Celtic Park. A huge match will then follow at Celtic Park in midweek with third-placed Hearts looking to close the gap. Another two away trips then follow before the next Old Firm clash at Aberdeen and Dundee United.

It is probably worth taking Hearts into consideration after a fine run of form for the Jambos. They are in Cup action also this weekend against St Johnstone before an away double-header against Dundee United and Kilmarnock. Hearts have home and away matches with Rangers, an away visit to Celtic, a home match against St Johnstone and an away trip to Hamilton in the same period of time.

Whether Hearts can last the pace in the chase for the Championship is anyone's guess, but with 3 matches in the next month against Rangers and Celtic, they have as big a say in the trophy's destination just as anyone else.

January also brings round the beauty of the transfer window and it remains to be seen who will be moving in the next month. Rangers are unlikely to strengthen for financial reasons and that might be a problem with Rangers competing in four different competitions this month - and potentially for the next few months like 2007/2008. Celtic have already added Ljungberg to a squad which saw a few players surprisingly step up to the plate on Sunday and Lennon could be after Forest defender Kelvin Wilson to strengthen a shaky defence. There is a growing belief amongst Hearts supporters that controversial owner Vladimir Romanov might indeed allow Jefferies to strengthen in the January window with two eyes on 2nd or even first place.

And who says Scottish Football is boring?

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Hearts Sub Injects Quality Into Lacklustre Derby

Scottish football fans are being treated to a bumper derby weekend and this afternoon's Edinburgh derby at Tynecastle will not have went down well with football purists.

Hearts entered this game on an excellent patch of form that has propelled them closer to the Old Firm. The Jambos have won 8 from their last 9 games and are creeping up on the big-two going into the new year. The same could not be said for their Edinburgh rivals Hibernian who have made an appalling start to the season and Colin Calderwood's side have not won since mid-November.

Jim Jefferies has galvanised Hearts in the first-half of the season and the in-form Jambos are gaining deserved plaudits for their performances. Youngster David Templeton has blasted on to the SPL stage and is quickly becoming the hottest property in Scottish Football after some dazzling performances. The regular side has been built on stability following years of Romanov toying with Lithuanian's galore at Tynecastle and today's starting line-up contained five Scottish players.

However, it was a Lithuanian youngster who changed the game in the second-half with some moments of quality to light up a dull affair. 19-year-old midfielder Arvydas Novikovas replaced the ineffective Templeton with 11 minutes to go and played a huge part in Hearts' late chances. First, he supplied a dangerous low cross to the back post but Gary Glen squandered a stunning chance from just a few yards out. Hibs just did not get close to the Lithuanian international and his neat wing-play supplied an inch-perfect cross for Kevin Kyle who netted with just four minutes remaining.

The previous 86 minutes had been mostly dominated by Hearts but the tempo of the game was hampered by numerous fouls early in the match. Hibs captain Ian Murray was lucky to remain on the field when he poleaxed Ian Black and left the Hearts midfielder needing intense treatment. The disruption to the game was helping neither side and Hearts were unable to create any chances despite having the majority of the possession.

The second half started just the same way as the first ended with the home side dominating the possession. Rudi Skacel produced a stunning save from Mark Brown after his in-swinging left-foot free kick had Brown scrambling to the top corner to keep Hearts at bay. The visitors just did not have a look-in and Calderwood's decision to bring on Colin Nish almost had a huge impact on the game with the former Kilmarnock striker missing easily Hibs' best chance of the match on 69 minutes.

Despite clear deficiencies in the Hibs side, the two central defenders in green and white, Francis Dickoh and Paul Hanlon, were both having a superb game considering the amount of pressure they were under. A major problem for Hibs was their inability to retain possession for spells in the game and hold the ball in the oppositions half. Derek Riordan was non-exsistant in the game and Calderwood should seriously consider letting the 16 out of contract players walk away in the summer and just starting from scratch.

A mixture of class from Novikovas and a lapse in concentration from the Hibs back four paved the way for a late Hearts winner and it came through Kevin Kyle who met Novikovas' fine cross perfectly and head home into the net before celebrating with the Gorgie faithful.

Unfortunately, these early kick-offs never seem to be work in the favour of the football purists and we have probably yet to see a decent game that has kicked-off just after midday.

Sympathy must go to Colin Calderwood who has a near impossible job to rebuild Hibs for the second half of the season.