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?