Advocaat's Rangers in no mood to relent

A new Scottish season opens today with no challenge to Ibrox dominance in sight as O'Neill begins picking up the pieces at Celtic.
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The Independent Online

Familiarity is supposed to breed contempt, but anyone interrogating Jörg Albertz would find sneering well down the queue behind that other "s" word: success. At the court of Prince Albertz only failure is held in contempt, which is one of the reasons why the German could yet find himself captain of a Rangers side which today sets out in pursuit of its 12th Scottish title in 13 years.

Familiarity is supposed to breed contempt, but anyone interrogating Jörg Albertz would find sneering well down the queue behind that other "s" word: success. At the court of Prince Albertz only failure is held in contempt, which is one of the reasons why the German could yet find himself captain of a Rangers side which today sets out in pursuit of its 12th Scottish title in 13 years.

"Every year there is a medal to win, so nothing gets boring for us," said Albertz, who will watch the Scottish Premier League flag - awarded to the winners - hoisted in the traditional ceremony which marks the opening of a new season before facing St Johnstone at Ibrox.

"Nobody needs to tell me about commitment," he added. "The whole team is like that. We want to be champions every time - if we won it 10 times in a row it would never get boring."

Two years of Dick Advocaat's reign has merely replenished the Ibrox hunger, which reached its peak when Walter Smith achieved nine successive titles. A barren swan-song in 1998, when Wim Jansen's Celtic won their only title of the Nineties, marred Smith's departure for Everton and ended the supporters' dreams of a historic 10 championships in a row, but since then Rangers have simply got back to business and begun a new era of domination.

Advocaat's side have taken the club's total number of championships to 49, and the Scottish Cup final victory last May was their 100th trophy in 127 years. But instead of resting on his laurels, the Dutchman has augmented his side with six new signings.

The Netherlands' Euro 2000 defender, Bert Konterman, came in from Feyenoord, the full-back Fernando Ricksen from AZ Alkmaar and the strikers Kenny Miller and Peter Lovenkrands from Hibernian and AB Copenhagen for a combined total of £12m, while Allan Johnston and Paul Ritchie arrived from Sunderland and Bolton respectively under freedom of contract.

Those reinforcements are more with the Champions' League in mind, but such is Advocaat's desire to win that he does not intend to be caught out when it comes to attending to domestic duties too.

The only cloud on Advocaat's summer was the failure to land a big-name striker. Bids for Darko Kovacevic, of Juventus, and Emile Mpenza, of Schalke 04, both failed, despite bids of £12m and £8.5m respectively, but even Rangers' obsession has its limits. "Kovacevic wanted £34,000 a week after tax," revealed the chairman, David Murray, "and that would have shattered our wage structure - we are not prepared to do that."

Anyway, Celtic supporters know that having a top-class striker is not a guarantee of success. From Paolo Di Canio to Mark Viduka, Parkhead has had a rich vein of flair over the last few years, but none of it paid off with silverware.

Four times in the last five years Celtic have had the SPL's top marksman (Pierre van Hooijdonk, Jorge Cadete, Henrik Larsson and Viduka). The only time the honour went outside the Parkhead dressing room was in 1997-98 when Marco Negri, of Rangers, took it; but Celtic's better teamwork earned the far greater reward of the championship itself.

That sequence may have made Viduka's departure to Leeds less of a heartache despite the Australian's 27 goals, even if some questioned Martin O'Neill's judgement in spending the £6m fee on Chris Sutton.

The former Chelsea misfit might not make his debut at Dundee United tomorrow because of an ankle injury, but even if he does he will not shift the spotlight away from his new manager. O'Neill becomes the seventh manager in nine years to attempt to end Rangers' hegemony and that statistic will ensure that his team play with a greater sense of self-preservation than the one under John Barnes, and the then caretaker Kenny Dalglish, did.

"It is the concentration of minds that is most important to me," the former Leicester City manager said. "Things will not change overnight, as our defensive mistakes against Bordeaux last Saturday showed. I've got people that I want to bring into this club, but maybe I will be surprised by some that I already have on the staff."

The signs are it may already be too late for Celtic's beleagured back line, after O'Neill yesterday completed the signing of the Belgian international defender Joos Valgaeren for £3.8m from JC Roda. Valgaeren trained with his new team-mates yesterday and is in line for a debut at Tannadice tomorrow.

For the rest, the gulf is simply too big to bridge. For clubs like Hearts - who have swallowed up an £8m investment in players and wages trying to keep pace - the season will be about a possible repeat of their 1998 Scottish Cup triumph and another Uefa Cup place, an achievement which would also satisfy their Edinburgh rivals Hibernian - whom they meet at Tynecastle tomorrow -although many fans are angry at the sale of Miller to Rangers just when the prolific young striker was starting to prosper.

The SPL will split after 33 games into two groups of six when the top half will play each other once more in pursuit of the title or Europe, while the lower order do likewise to beat the drop. The SPL has been criticised for the messy system, based on the Swiss league model, as it aims to limit fixtures with its mission statement of gradual expansion.

Aberdeen will seek to avoid being in the latter group, from which newly promoted St Mirren and Dunfermline are unlikely to escape, while the former Sampdoria player Ivano Bonetti may find Dundonians as unforgiving as the Mafia if his Italian colonisation of Dundee brings only relegation.

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