Seven points of intrigue ahead of the new Premiership season

Hearts manager Ian Cathro is under severe pressure before the season has even started. Picture: SNS
Hearts manager Ian Cathro is under severe pressure before the season has even started. Picture: SNS
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Can Celtic repeat as Invincibles? Will Rangers’ new signings thrive in Scottish football? And can Ian Cathro save himself at Hearts?

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Rangers and their Latin imports

Bruno Alves, Alfedo Morelos, Fabio Cardoso, Daniel Candeias, Carlos Pena, Eduardo Herrera and Dalcio. It sounds more like a list of characters from Narcos than a Scottish football club’s summer signings list. Pedro Caixinha has opted to go down the route of gathering a squad of players that he knows and trusts, but it remains to be seen whether they can hit the ground running in the unique world of Scottish football.

He has attempted to balance it off by signing Graham Dorrans and Ryan Jack who come with good reputations in this country, particularly Dorrans. However, that is two players out of nine new recruits and they are heavily outweighed by players who are unknown quantities in this league which should set off alarm bells for Rangers fans given Mark Warburton paid the price for appearing to underestimate the Scottish top flight after promotion.

The players brought in all have good backgrounds in the game but that does not guarantee success as we saw during Paul Le Guen’s time at the club.

In fairness Caixinha has also targeted Jamie Walker and Kenny McLean and does not seem to have given up on them, although it looks unlikely that they will be prised away from Hearts and Aberdeen respectively.

Rangers fans and owner Dave King will be desperate to see a massive improvement and to make last season a distant memory, however if Caixinha and his imports get off to a slow start the pressure will be on straight away and it is not easy to recover from that at Ibrox.

Can Cathro save himself?

Ian Cathro did not have his troubles to seek in his first half season as Hearts manager. While trying to oversee a mini overhaul of the squad in January he lost key defenders Callum Paterson and John Souttar to injury, which added even more instability to the team.

The form was woeful, winning only eight matches from 30 after Cathro took over which is nowhere near good enough for a demanding Tynecastle support. Recruitment during the aforementioned mini-overhaul left a lot to be desired and only three of the nine of players brought in January remain at the club, as the majority did little to convince despite some of them having good pedigrees.

Transfer business completed over the summer has been more encouraging with management stating that they would consciously be looking to recruit a more British core of players.

The addition of Christophe Berra was a sure-fire fan-appeaser and he will add steel and organisation to the defence alongside Aaron Hughes. Equally as high profile an arrival was Kyle Lafferty after a highly publicised rebuffing of Edinburgh rivals Hibs, and the Northern Ireland frontman has already scored four goals in four Betfred Cup matches. Lafferty’s countryman Michael Smith has looked steady at right wing-back, while Man City loanee Ashley Smith-Brown has played fleetingly on the other side but has also shown promise. Two goals and solid performances in pre-season friendlies from Cole Stockton offer hope that Cathro may have found a gem. Polish utility man Rafal Grzelak has been the only non-Brit added to the squad so far.

One area that has not been addressed is the goalkeeper situation after Jack Hamilton bore the brunt of much of the supporters’ ire last season. That uneasiness has carried on through this season’s early matches and he still looks very short on confidence, to the point where his presence could seriously hamper the team’s chances. Management have been actively seeking to strengthen in that position.

Even if Cathro is given a stay of execution by the Hearts board, his departure appears inevitable following the embarrassing League Cup exit. Hearts begin the campaign with four successive away games before Aberdeen come to Tynecastle on a day which should see the opening of a new main stand. It’s not too much to suggest Hearts could go winless through that stretch, and Cathro’s position will become untenable if that’s the case.

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Hibernian’s consistency

It is always interesting to see how a promoted team will get on in their first season back in the top flight. However, as with Hearts and Rangers in recent years, Hibs will actually be expected to go straight into the top half of the league, with Neil Lennon bullishly stating second place was the aim.

Inconsistency stopped Hibs from really wiping the floor with the Championship and they will need to be on their game more often in the top flight. Complacency may have bore inconsistency against second tier sides and they will be ‘at it’ more often when playing at a higher level.

Cup form against Premiership sides was almost flawless while in the second tier, but cynics will say that they were raising their game and are unable to do so over a whole season. If Hibs can prove that not to be the case and repeat that form, then second may not be completely out of the question.

Consensus is that a striker is still required, despite Simon Murray being on fire in the Betfred Cup and Lithuanian Deivydas Matulevicius also being added. Anthony Stokes is the man that the club and supporters both want, but at the moment he is keeping them waiting as he mulls over other offers.

A return to the club for Steven Whittaker makes sense as he offers cover in both full back positions and midfield as well as vast experience which will be valuable for a return to the top league. Another Lithuanian, Vykintas Slivka, comes from Juventus which in itself suggests he has something about him. And despite fans being frustrated at a lack of movement in the forward areas, Lennon himself will probably be content with his business so far, with Efe Ambrose, Ofir Marciano and Danny Swanson signed early in the window.

Celtic Invincibles II?

It would seem to be incredibly unlikely that Celtic will complete another invincible season, but then again many of us said that the first time, didn’t we?

They are still streets ahead of the rest which makes it entirely plausible and with the jury still out on Rangers’ recruitment drive there is every chance of another disastrous season down Govan way, which could pave the way for their rivals to sweep everything before them once more.

Celtic look weaker on paper, purely down to the return of Patrick Roberts to Manchester City. He was a player who supplied guile and craft which was valuable against teams who sat in against them. Jonny Hayes is not a like-for-like replacement and is unlikely to be a regular starter, while Olivier Ntcham is a young player who has been brought to Scotland to be developed, although a £4.5 million fee suggests he may have something to offer straight away.

Moussa Dembele is in demand with clubs around Europe reportedly ready to splash out on him and Brendan Rodgers not prepared to sell until after the Champions League qualifiers. Even then a replacement would need to be sought with Leith Griffiths the only other centre forward in the squad.

We have already seen problems when Griffiths and Dembele are injured at the same time, as the team struggled with Tom Rogic as a ‘false 9’ in the Rosenborg tie. It would demean Scottish football if a team were to go through two full seasons undefeated, but there will be a belief within Celtic Park that they can do it again.

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Ross County without Liam Boyce

Last season’s Premiership top scorer played for a team that finished in seventh, scoring almost half of their goals. Take out those strikes and they would have scored the least in the league by some distance, which is a reality they will be desperate to avoid this time around following his move to Burton Albion.

It would be a stretch to say his goals have been propping them up as they finished seventh the season before he arrived. However, they may have grown to rely on him to hit the net.

If no-one can step up and fill the void then we could see County slide towards a relegation battle, which they have managed to avoid in recent years. Existing forwards Craig Curran, Alex Schalk and Ryan Dow are all players who do their best work outside of the box while chipping in with the odd goal, and none are likely to get close to Boyce’s total of 23.

Thomas Mikkelsen has been added but similarly he is more of a target man, notching seven times in the Championship for Dundee United in the second half of last season.

The man who they are most likely to look to as a regular source of goals is Billy Mckay. After securing his signature from Wigan, Jim McIntyre confidently stated that Mckay will get goals for his side.

If he can replicate the form that won him a move from Inverness to Wigan then McIntrye might be correct. However, the Northern Irishman has endured a frustrating time since them.

He failed to hit the net in ten appearances for the Latics, and likewise in 23 appearances during a loan spell at Oldham. He also had two temporary spells back in Scotland, failing to stop Dundee United being relegated in 2015-16 and suffering the same fate with Inverness last season. He will hope crossing the Highland divide can reignite his previous form.

Aberdeen – a new cycle

Controversy was stirred when Rangers manager claimed Aberdeen were coming to the end of their ‘cycle’. However, there did appear to be come basis to his comments with Jonny Hayes and Ryan Jack leaving for Celtic and Rangers respectively, Niall McGinn emigrating to South Korea and Ash Taylor and Peter Pawlett heading down south.

Manager Derek McInnes also looked set to take the Sunderland job before a change of heart saw him stay and commit to the club until 2020 along with assistant Tony Docherty. What followed were signings which may suggest Aberdeen’s new cycle may be as successful as the old one

Ryan Christie returned on loan as part of the Hayes deal and Greg Stewart joined on similar terms from Birmingham having already shown his quality in the league with Dundee. McInnes also managed to secure experienced English forward Nicky Maynard and Gary Mackay-Steven from Celtic on a permanent deal.

Fan favourite Kari Arnason returns to the club to try and shore up the heart of defence which has been viewed as a problem position for Aberdeen.

The 2-0 victory away to Siroki Brijeg was another lift for the Dons, accentuated by the fact that both goals were scored by two of the new signings - Stewart and Mackay-Steven - and created by Christie.

None of the signings are ready made replacements for what was there before, but all are of a good standard and capable of securing another second place finish. That has to be the target for McInnes and they will feel that it is theirs to lose. It will be a challenge for Caixinha and Rangers to wrestle that from their grasp.

New look Dundee

After saving Dundee from relegation during an interim spell as manager, Neil McCann decided to go back to his safer role as a pundit for Sky Sports. Next in line was Jack Ross, but St. Mirren were determined not to let their man go. Then, out of the blue, McCann was unveiled as manager on a permanent basis just days after leaving the club.

The former Dees winger, who also played for Hearts and Rangers, appeared to get a reaction out of the players during his short spell at the club last season. He has now added to the squad with some alluring transfer dealings.

The best known in Scottish footballing terms is Scott Allan who has arrived on loan from Celtic. The midfielder’s abilities are well known in this country but have only been shown consistently during one season at Hibs. Before that there were glimpses as a Dundee United youngster but he made only eight appearances before moving to West Brom, and he failed to make any impact at Celtic. Regular game time at Dundee could be what he needs , and Dundee could certainly do with a creative spark in the midfield.

Allan’s signature is a ‘coup’ but McCann has been busy on other fronts. The manager spoke in glowing terms about the potential of Roarie Deacon, signed from Sutton United and he tapped in to his extensive contacts book to unearth Dutch winger Randy Wolters and Tunisian forward Sofien Moussa. A decent career in his homeland suggests Wolters could be another to add a bit of ‘X-Factor’ to the side, and Moussa has already scored a hat-trick against Cowdenbeath. Glen Kamara has been lured north from the Arsenal academy while fellow young players Jack Hendry and Lewis Spence are prospects for the future.

Plenty of eyes will be on young full back Cammy Kerr who has been made vice-captain after a highly impressive season in which he was awarded the club’s Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year awards. An exciting season could be in store for Dundee fans after a year in which they struggled to cope with the loss of Greg Stewart and Kane Hemmings.

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