Pretenders' title credentials set for key Old Firm examination

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The Independent Football

With Scotland and the Old Firm grabbing so many headlines in recent months, the most competitive start to an SPL season in years has been slightly overshadowed. Three points separate the top four clubs, and Motherwell, in fifth place this morning, are only two wins off the pace. This weekend's games, when leaders Celtic (on 22 points) host Motherwell this afternoon before second-placed Rangers (22 points) travel to fourth-placed Dundee United (19) tomorrow, should give a clearer indication of the strength in depth. Hibernian, in third, were upset by Motherwell last weekend to deny them top spot in the table, and host St Mirren today.

Celtic will welcome the return of Scott McDonald after the Australian striker was rested for the midweek defeat at Benfica. His fellow strikers Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink and Maciej Zurawski are out injured. Gary Caldwell may continue deputising at right-back with Celtic's three other players in that position injured.

Rangers have no new injury worries following Tuesday's 0-0 draw with Barcelona, but neither Jean-Claude Darcheville nor Brahim Hemdani will return before next week.

Dundee United have yet to concede at home this season in five league games, four of which have been won. Rangers' manager, Walter Smith, said: "Craig [Levein] has got them into an excellent unit. They had a terrific result at Tynecastle last week, beating Hearts 3-1, and he's doing a terrific job."

Smith said his own team have not yet reached the stage where they can produce a big European performance and expect a smooth return to domestic action as a right. "Sometimes you can play in a big game and come back at the weekend and drop down a little bit and still manage to win. I don't think we're at that level yet. We have to be at the top of our game for all our games."

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