Le Guen enters the cauldron

Rangers' new manager has endured the sweltering Sahara. But life may be getting hotter
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The Independent Football

League championships, they say, are a marathon, not a sprint. That should make Paul Le Guen better equipped than anyone to judge whether his Rangers side can go the distance now that he is in charge.

The new Ibrox manager underwent his own preparation for life in Glasgow's pressure cooker by completing the punishing Marathon des Sables a few months ago. Le Guen looked like an extra from Beau Geste as his kepi kept the Saharan sun off his neck. It was hardly the sartorial style you expect from a Frenchman, but it was practical. Time will tell whether Rangers mirror those traits.

Last season, they were 23 points adrift of Celtic by the time their eternal rivals sealed the Scottish Premier League title at its earliest-ever conclusion. Gordon Strachan's remarkable first campaign at Celtic meant the end for his friend, Alex McLeish, across the city. The enduring Old Firm race is more unforgiving than the one in the Sahara: first is everything, second is nowhere.

Rangers did not even have that consolation last term. They finished third, behind Heart of Midlothian, who took the SPL's other place in the Champions' League. When Le Guen begins his era next Sunday, with a tough opening-day fixture away to Motherwell, he will be painfully aware that while his predecessor performed admir-ably in guiding Rangers to the last 16 of Europe's premier competition, in the domestic race they hit the wall as early as November.

The only pursuit in which Rangers were successful was for Le Guen. The 42-year-old, who won three successive French league titles with Lyon, was in demand after taking a year's sabbatical that allowed Gérard Houllier to inherit his omnipotent dynasty at the Stade Gerland.

Lazio and Olympiakos were among Le Guen's suitors, and it is fair to say that the Gallic football fraternity were left incredulous by the decision of their brightest managerial star to reject the glitz and sunshine on offer elsewhere and choose Scotland to work. "Yes, they are surprised," Le Guen acknowledges. "That's because I won three titles with Lyon and had offers from other clubs. However, I don't live for what other people think about this. The most important thing is what I think inside."

As a Breton, Le Guen will have no problem with Glasgow's rain, but he might find it harder not to be disenchanted with the economic drought at Ibrox. Missing out on the Champions' League merely compounds the club's problems. Most of the recent £18 million investment from JJB, the sports retailers, went to clear off the club's debt, which soared at one point to £70m a few seasons ago.

Le Guen's budget is nowhere near that of the former incumbent Dick Advocaat - who squandered £12m on Tore Andre Flo in 2000 - or even that of McLeish, who was able to pay out £6m for Mikel Arteta, now with Everton.

The Frenchman will have to be more pragmatic. Libor Sionko, Jeremy Clement and Karl Svensson have been modest purchases, the first two costing £1m each from Austria Vienna and Lyon, while the last, a defender in Sweden's World Cup squad, had a £650,000 price tag. Lionel Letizi was the second-choice goalkeeper at Paris St-Germain, while Makhtar N'Diaye worked with Le Guen several years ago at Rennes but has to make do with a one-year contract.

The situation is in stark contrast to the one Le Guen left in Lyon. There are no Michael Essiens on the payroll. "There are no frustrations," said Le Guen last week after a pre-season tour of South Africa that included a defeat by Mamelodi Sundowns. "I knew the [financial] situation. We talked about that several times before I came here, and it is not a problem. We cannot have all the players we would like but I never complain. I am happy with the players I have got but I will try to get two or three more before the deadline."

That might be achieved if he can remove some of McLeish's underachievers from the wage bill. Not everyone has proved they can keep up with the new manager's demands; Fernando Ricksen was sent back home from South Africa after alcohol-fuelled actions on the long flight led the manager to suspend the Dutch midfielder for "unacceptable behaviour".

Ricksen's absence did not disturb Le Guen's equilibrium. "We had a good week in Johannesburg and I am happy with the team bonding we did throughout the week," said the manager. "In football, it's always the same. We are trying to go as fast as we can. I know that we need a little time, perhaps some months, but I am sure that we can have a good team. The fans want results straight away but that is good pressure, and I am able to live with that pressure."

That was what Strachan thought. Twelve months ago, he emerged from a similar sabbatical to take over at Celtic, and went from the chill-out zone to meltdown in the space of a few days as his team lost nine goals in two games. Four of those came in a remarkable SPL curtain-raiser at Fir Park in a 4-4 draw. If Le Guen suffers a similar fate at Motherwell, he will need more than a kepi to withstand the heat.

Moving stories: six new arrivals to make an impact in Scotland this season

By Phil Gordon

JIRI JAROSIK Celtic (£2m from Chelsea)

Overlooked at Chelsea, reborn at Celtic. That was the case for Chris Sutton, who was only too happy to tell Jarosik to head for Parkhead after the midfielder's loan at Birmingham was up. Jose Mourinho told the Czech as he left: "You are one of my favourite players." "Celtic is the perfect environment for me," says Jarosik.

LIBOR SIONKO Rangers (£1m, Austria Vienna)

Czech-mate? Sionko will spend the first few weeks in Glasgow in the same hotel as the friend who will be the enemy. "Jiri is a good friend and it is incredible we will soon face each other in one of the great derby games," says Sionko, who played over 30 matches in the Champions' League alongside Jarosik before moving to Austria Vienna.

MAURICIO PINILLA Hearts (loan, Sporting Lisbon)

If the Chilean striker uses his loan in the same fashion as Rudi Skacel, then Hearts will flourish. Pinilla has an impressive pedigree but has yet to fulfil potential that saw Inter recruit him as a teenager. "I'm the best player in Chile," he says. "I thought European football would be easier but it's hard. Now I want to show that I'm a good player."

CHRIS KATONGO Aberdeen (free, Jomo Cosmos)

The Zambian international was spotted by Aberdeen after he scored against them on their South African tour. Cosmos are waiving a fee because they believe they and the Dons can recoup that when the 23-year-old midfielder is sold on. "I am happy to take him, he is a very talented player," says manager Jimmy Calderwood.

NOEL HUNT Dundee Utd (Dunfermline Ath)

Hardest thing for any player-manager is to replace himself. Craig Brewster has found life tough since going to United because the veteran striker broke his foot on debut. Now he has recruited someone in his own mould, but younger, to lead the attack. The Irishman will be asked to partner Lee Miller or Trinidad's Collin Samuel.

ROSS MCCORMACK Motherwell (Rangers)

Teenager kept Rangers in the Champions' League last season with an equaliser at Porto. His reward was to be sent on loan to Doncaster Rovers. Then Paul Le Guen told the 19-year-old he could go. "It's up to me to show he was wrong and I intend to do that," says McCormack. "Things move on and I feel I can really develop at Motherwell."

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