Scottish Premier League

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SPL preview: Celtic still favorites

Celtic's Gary Hooper (2nd R) celebrates
With Rangers out of the mix, Celtic must battle complacency next season.
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Jamie Trecker

Jamie Trecker is the Senior Editor for FOXSoccer.com. A working journalist for 25 years, he covers the Champions League, European soccer and the world game. Follow him on Twitter.

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The Scottish Premier League kicks off this weekend with two big matches on FOX Soccer. FOX Soccer is the new home of the SPL and champions Celtic begin their drive to retain the title with a match against Aberdeen on Saturday (live, FOX Soccer, 7:30 a.m. ET) while Europa League heroes Dundee United take on Edinburgh’s Hibernian on Sunday (live, FOX Soccer Plus, 8:00 a.m. ET).

But clouds hang over the SPL this season, and many eyes will be on a team that isn’t even playing in the league. That team, of course, is Rangers, who were banished to the third division after they were bankrupted and reformed as a new club. Coming up to replace them is tiny Dundee — a team that finished a full 24 points behind Ross County in last year’s second division.

With all due respect to the Tangerines, the prospect of a Tayside derby against cross-street rivals United will not make up for the loss of one of the world’s greatest fixtures in the Old Firm derby. But that is where Scottish football is at and the absence of Rangers has thrown the league into a state of financial panic.

Five top-flight teams are said to be flirting with bankruptcy and the loss of a team that brought the ten smaller clubs a guaranteed gate is nothing short of a disaster for the minnows’ balance sheets.

Yet, there is a sense that Scotland may finally be turning the page on a bitter era. Glasgow’s giants had strangled the league, turning it into a yearly two-horse race that helped make the SPL irrelevant. When Rangers’ new ownership pleaded to be allowed to remain in the top flight, there was a real feeling that all of Scottish football was in existential crisis. A number of clubs complained bitterly about the pressure from the sport’s governors – and for once, listened to the fans. Rangers were banished, some big paydays were left on the table and now Scotland now has a chance to rebuild a very tarnished brand.

In the near term, Celtic are likely to simply walk away with the crown. They have the deepest squad, the most money and are inarguably the best of what is candidly a weak lot. Coming behind them, however, are some interesting sides that have the potential to issue a surprise.

Leading the pack is Dundee United, widely tipped to finish second. Wilo Flood and Jon Daly look like true strikers, and the team seems to have found a replacement for Dusan Pernis in Radoslaw Cierzniak. Johnny Russell, a target for some bigger sides, remains with the Arabs for now and is a capable creator and scorer.

Aberdeen, once a great side, is looking at a mid-table finish. The Dons have struggled badly over the last few years and manager Craig Brown’s first task will be to shore up a leaky defense. He has made a couple clever moves in the transfer window – young Irish winger Johnny Hayes was a flier at Caley Thistle – but the Granite City side is not what it once was.

The capital city sides, Hibs and Hearts, are travelling in opposite directions. Hibs were mauled by Hearts 5-1 at Hampden Park and they do not look to have recovered. Both teams have lost a number of significant players but Hearts look decent enough to finish in the top half. Hibs, on the other hand, should be sitting near the bottom. Pat Fenlon’s biggest task is avoiding relegation.

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The outlier might be tiny St. Johnstone, who have seven new players and look like they have a chance to surprise. No one is going to confuse the Saints with Real Madrid, but young Nigel Hasselbaink – he is the nephew of the great Jimmy Floyd – delivered promise last season with St. Mirren. If his form continues, Hasselbaink be a breakout player.

As for Rangers, they face teams with names like Elgin City, Montrose and Queen’s Park. It is an irony that Scotland is the only country with two fourth division sides playing in top-rated UEFA stadiums (Queen’s Park’s home is the national stadium, Hampden). These are indeed interesting times for Scotland – and it’s hard to argue that it’s not worth a look.

Jamie Trecker is the senior editor for FOXSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclays Premier League.

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