GLASGOW: Scottish champions Rangers begin their quest for a 51st Premier League title against Kilmarnock on Saturday looking more unsettled than when they faced the same side 12 months ago.
Last August, Italian defender Lorenzo Amoruso played in a 1-1 draw at Kilmarnock on the opening day of a season that ended with the seventh Treble – league title, League Cup and Scottish Cup – in Rangers’ 131-year history.
However, the strapping Italian defender was reluctantly sold to Blackburn Rovers during the close season, becoming part of a steady stream of players leaving Ibrox.
Dutchmen Arthur Numan and Bert Konterman, plus Argentine Claudio Caniggia, have also departed as Rangers seek to trim their wage bill.
Unsettled Spanish midfielder Mikel Arteta – who slid home the penalty that handed his side the title by one goal on goal difference from Celtic on a fraught final day last season – is also expected to leave as Rangers attempt to generate funds.
Last week, the Deloitte and Touche annual review of football finance reported that Rangers recorded an operating loss of £19 million – a record for any British club – in 2001-2002.
Such gloomy figures have constrained manager Alex McLeish’s ability to strengthen the squad.
“It will be difficult to follow the Treble-winning season,” said Dutch international Ronald de Boer. “Fans may expect the same thing again but you don’t often win back-to-back Trebles.”
In fact, no club in Scottish football history has won back-to-back Trebles.
If Rangers manage the feat, it would be little short of miraculous, particularly as McLeish has signed a paltry five players and spent most of his time cajoling the best out of those he inherited since taking charge in December 2001.
Portuguese winger Nuno Capucho was signed from UEFA Cup winners FC Porto and young Georgian defender Zurab Khizanishvili has joined from Dundee. But the signings have only replaced outgoing players rather than enhanced McLeish’s options.
Certainly, the Scottish champions could do with a towering defender if they are to overcome a powerful Celtic side in the league while also making headway in the Champions League, where they open in the third qualifying round.
Rangers will probably face FC Copenhagen, rather than Malta’s Sliema Wanderers, in their bid to reach the lucrative group stages for the first time in three years.
Celtic know all about failing to reach the Champions League after last year’s away-goals loss to FC Basel in their final qualifying match.
However, Martin O’Neill’s side did use that defeat to spur them to their best run in Europe for 33 years.
Celta Vigo, VfB Stuttgart and Liverpool were among those brushed aside before Celtic went down 3-2 to Porto in extra time of the UEFA Cup final.
That run also helped Celtic to regain credibility outside Scotland, even though it probably hampered their efforts to win the domestic league for a third consecutive year.
After beating Lithuanian side Kaunas 4-0 in the first leg of their Champions League second-round qualifier, Celtic are likely to face Hungarian side MTK in their final qualifier and should reach the group stages for the second time in three seasons.
This is also Henrik Larsson’s last season with Celtic after seven years and the Swedish striker – who scored his 200th and 201st goals for the club in the UEFA Cup final – will again spearhead his side’s bid for silverware.
But, like Rangers, Celtic require a few new faces as they attempt to replicate last season’s success.
Hearts, Dundee and Dundee United are favourites to jostle for third place but no club outside Celtic and Rangers has won the league since Aberdeen managed it under Alex Ferguson in 1985.
Despite recent soundbites from O’Neill arguing that it may not be a two-horse race, Celtic or Rangers will undoubtedly end the season as champions of Scotland. – Reuters