Friday, July 22, 2011

SPL: Rangers v Hearts

The first of this weekend's six preview posts, starting with the first game - Rangers v Hearts. Quite a match to kick things off.

The game


Championship flag a-flappin' in the Govan breeze Rangers have the perfect chance to dismiss as exaggerations any rumours of their footballing demise. Quite a test though against a Hearts side who will be out to show that we'd be foolish to write off their intention of taking the challenge to the Old Firm this season.

Which might lead me to predict a draw if I didn't think that habit and a sense of occassion will propel Rangers to a win.

Rangers


Having waited a long time to become his own man "young" Ally McCoist must be feeling some frustration at the moment. Daddy's left him the keys to the house but not the credit card to buy any furniture.

Target upon target seems to have slipped away from McCoist, his football director Gordon Smith and new owner Craig Whyte.

At the time of writing only Juan Manuel Ortiz, Lee Wallace and (just about confirmed) Alejandro Bedoya have arrived.

They could be whoppingly magnficent signings - Scotland fans will hope so in the case of Wallace at least - but they don't at first glance appear to provide the solutions to the questions that hung over the squad even in their moment of triumph last season.

Certainly they don't seem to offer the statement of intent that other rumoured targets who have, reportedly, fallen by the wayside might have done.

On the other hand a number of key players have signed long term deals to provide McCoist with a sense of stability.

But right now Rangers put me in mind of that well known raconteur and good time guy Donald Rumsfeld. Everywhere you look there an known unknowns and unknown unknowns.

We think we know McCoist but we've no idea how he will react to the top job, to the removal of Walter Smith's wise, protective embrace.

And how will the players, so many of whom worked under Smith and know McCoist as assistant and coach, react to him? What will they feel if they disagree ever so slightly with his way of doing things and then find results going a bit awry? We don't know.

More signings, ambitous signings, money to burn? We don't know.

But there is one massively important "known known." We've written Rangers off before, written them off when they've had much the same group of players and much the same coaching staff.

They have a habit of ignoring our predictions and just winning the sodding league anyway.

Declare this a powder puff title challenge before a ball is even kicked at your peril.

Still I can't help but feel that this season might be a struggle, a campaign too far.

Twitter tips: Nikica Jelavic, Steven Davis

Hearts


I'm delighted to welcome back Craig Cairns, blogger extraordinaire at Three at the Back, to furnish us with this preview of the season ahead for Hearts. You can also follow Craig on Twitter.

In terms of new recruits, Jim Jefferies was the fastest out of the blocks in the SPL, quickly securing the services of Danny Grainger, John Sutton and Jamie Hamill on free transfers before the month of May was out. Zander Diamond was pursued around the same time but negotiations broke down during the former-Aberdeen defender’s medical.

The attempt to sign Diamond, and subsequent trial of Kari Arnason, suggests that Jefferies is still in the market for a central defender to cover for club-captain Marius Zaliukas, who no stranger to a suspension, and the injury-prone Andy Webster. It was mentioned during the unveiling of Grainger that if required he is an able deputy at centre-back but with Lee Wallace leaving for Ibrox, he now finds himself as the first-choice left-back.

It remains to be seen but I expect Jefferies to add to the centre of his defence, and possibly bring in more cover at full-back, before the transfer window ends.

The general feeling going into the new season is that Hearts have strengthened their squad without significantly strengthening their starting eleven. Two full-backs, a winger-cum-second striker and a striker have all been added, bulking the numbers in these positions.

Assuming a central defender is also added then the only area of the pitch that seems to have been neglected in terms of strengthening is the centre of midfield. More specifically, the defensive-midfield band of the 4-2-3-1 Jefferies seemed to favour last season. These positions were mostly filled Ian Black and Adrian Mrowiec during the 2010/11 campaign and it seems that these two will form the centre-midfield pairing when the season kicks off at Ibrox on Saturday.

On their day both are excellent SPL players. During his loan from Kaunas, Mrowiec struggled to perform and it was surprising when Jefferies offered him a permanent deal. The Pole doesn’t offer much attacking impetus but for a sizable amount of last season he offered terrific protection to the Hearts defence and was one of the reasons the side picked up seven clean sheets over a nine match period.

Black, on the other hand, is positioned slightly ahead of Mrowiec and is expected to get on the ball and create while still being expected to close down the opposition and break up attacks, even if he is over-exuberant at times in his execution (although it must be said that he himself is often subjected to reckless challenges from his opponents).

Despite their qualities both struggled towards the end of last season. It should be noted however that the team as a whole slumped and in the end hobbled over the third-place finish line, a target that at one point seemed like a stroll. There is no questioning Black’s passion and commitment, the big problem for Black is his consistency. Some of his performances at the turn of the year were man-of-the-match material; however, he has failed to hit any sort of consistency in his performance.

The lack of cover for these positions is worrying. Rudi Skacel, Scott Robinson and Mehdi Taouil, another player who arrived on a free transfer during the summer, can all play in the centre of midfield but tend to occupy the attacking central-midfield role just off the striker. Skacel is the only one of the three that seems to posses the attributes to move back a position but his future at the club remains uncertain.

Ryan Stevenson is another who can sit alongside either Black or Mrowiec but I think even he would admit that no one really knows his best position. Initially Stevenson struggled with the pace of the SPL and only made the odd appearance. During the second half of last season he was used in a number of positions and I think it is fair to say he lacked consistency in any of them. His best spell came as an auxiliary striker in the absence of Kevin Kyle once he was allowed to settle into the role. All things considered it would appear that he is more suited to a more attacking role.

This leaves Eggert Jonsson and Ryan McGowan as possible competition. Jonsson was converted to full-back under Csaba Laszlo and has since played almost every position for Hearts. The few occasions where he has been returned to his supposed natural position he has struggled. Even so, he will be required at right-back for the first two matches of the season due to Hamill’s suspension and will then be required to deputise for either of the first-choice full-backs should they find themselves out of the side for whatever reason.

McGowan’s few chances in the first team have yielded mixed reports. He first broke into the side towards the end of the disastrous 2006/07, impressed and has since undergone loan spells with Ayr United and Partick Thistle, earning favourable reports. His performances towards the end of last season left much to be desired but at 21-years-old this may be the season where he establishes himself as a first team regular.

With Skacel’s future uncertain and the likes of Stevenson and Taouil likely to be used in more advanced positions, along with the Jonsson being required at full-back and the lack of new recruits in this area of the side, this may be the time for the young Australian to make his mark at Tynecastle.

Unless Black and Mrowiec improve on their form from the tail end of last season or else McGowan reaches something near his full potential then I feel that this will be a potential weak-spot for the Hearts side in the all-too-important midfield battles they will inevitably face.

Twitter tips: Andy Webster, John Sutton, Mehdi Taouil, Rudi Skacel