Strachan faces an uncertain start to Celtic title defence

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The Independent Football

Travel, transfers and experience are the three factors that threaten to undermine Celtic and Hearts, first and second in the Scottish Premier League in May, as they seek the same or better this season. Kick-off is at lunchtime today when the champions play host to Kilmarnock.

Travel is meant in the broadest sense. Celtic's summer tours to Poland and America were tiring enough but imminent trips to Japan and London for friendlies, after the serious business is under way, border on the insane. After meeting Killie, Gordon Strachan and co fly to Tokyo to play Yokohama F Marinos in a money-spinning jaunt on Thursday.

They will have less than 48 hours on their return to prepare for a tough trip to Hearts next Sunday. They will then visit Chelsea on 9 August for another competitively meaningless pay day ahead of their next SPL fixture, on 12 August.

When the Champions' League then begins in earnest, with Celtic going straight into the deep end of the group stages, there lurks the real possibility that Europe could present the kind of distraction it did for the other half of the Old Firm in 2005-06, when Rangers faltered domestically and finished a humiliating third.

Hearts, whose season got under way on Wednesday in the Champions' League second qualifying round, have a return leg next week in Bosnia and then, barring a shock, a double-header with AEK Athens to squeeze in.

The travel and transfers headaches merge for the Tynecastle side because their progress to the group stages (or not) will almost certainly dictate whether the club's owner, Vladimir Romanov, will open his wallet. He has not signed a single player yet this summer, while it seems inevitable that two pivotal men from last season - the flair winger Rudi Skacel and the Scotland defender Andy Webster - will leave soon for England.

Both clubs doubtlessly intend to secure an ace or two before the transfer window shuts, as do Rangers, the other contenders in a three-horse race for the title. (The next-best, Hibernian, Aberdeen and Kilmarnock, available at between 250-1 and 500-1, are not overpriced). But the net effect of their trading for the new campaign leaves more questions than answers.

Strachan has acquired two Scotland strikers, Kenny Miller and the combustible Derek Riordan, their compatriot defender Gary Caldwell and two foreign midfielders, Jiri Jarosik and Evander Sno. But there is also a debit in experience. As Strachan said recently: "Just before we won the league, I thought, [Stilian] 'Petrov, [Roy] Keane, [Dion] Dublin and [John] Hartson, that's lots of experience.'"

Today they are going (Petrov badly wants to leave), gone, gone, gone. And in Hartson's case, lumbering though he was at times, a guarantee of 20 goals a season has gone with him.

There will be more new faces at Celtic Park, with the Bulgarian left-back Ivaylo Petkov due next week and the feelers out for two less probable new Bhoys, the striker Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink from PSV Eindhoven and midfielder Anatoliy Timoshchuk from Shakhtar Donetsk.

A dismal pre-season has done nothing to suggest that Celtic will have a storming start. In seven pre-season friendlies they have won only once, beating Everton, which may say more about the Goodison Park side than Celtic. Their goals total was two.

On the plus side, Strachan does have at his disposal some wonderfully creative players. Shunsuke Nakamura, whose profile led to the Japan trip, is one, and while his stated aim is a move to Spain at some stage he knows only good form will help him. Shaun Maloney, a terrier with pace to frighten any defender, is another good bet. So too Aiden McGeady.

The chemistry up front remains unknown, with Maciej Zurawski a favoured starter, probably alongside the quick Miller. But make no mistake, this season will be almost as much of an experiment in team rebuilding as last year, when Strachan took over from Martin O'Neill.

Only this time, Rangers will feel the zest of Paul Le Guen's new broom and Hearts will start with the knowledge that turbulence is there to be overcome, not to be blown away by.

What happens at Tyne-castle is in many ways the most intriguing element in the race for honours. Under the reign of Romanov, anything could happen, from a glorious assault on Europe to total meltdown. The players showed character last season but if there is a doubt about their fate it is that they were superb last season with their best XI playing to their best, and markedly worse at other times.

Romanov has been saying that he has faith in young blood, but it is fresh blood (and not on the carpet) that might be necessary, not least up front. A proven marksmen with all kinds of staying power could change the complexion of the division at a stroke.

Ins and outs at Scotland's big three

* CELTIC

IN: Derek Riordan (Forward, from Hibernian, undisclosed)

Jiri Jarosik (Midfielder, Chelsea, undisclosed)

Kenny Miller (Forward, Wolves, free)

Gary Caldwell (Defender, Hibernian, free)

Evander Sno (Midfielder, Feyenoord, undisclosed).

OUT: John Hartson (West Bromwich, £500,000)

Roy Keane (Retired)

Dion Dublin (Released)

* RANGERS

IN: Makhtar N'Diaye (Midfielder, Yverdon, free)

Jérémy Clément (Midfielder, Lyon, £1.1m)

Libor Sionko (Midfield, Austria Vienna, free)

Karl Svensson (Defender, IFK Gothenburg, undisclosed)

William Stanger (Midfielder, Rennes, free)

Antoine Ponroy (Defender, Rennes, free)

Dean Furman (Midfielder, Chelsea, free)

Lionel Letizi (Goalkeeper, Paris St Germain, free)

OUT: Peter Lovenkrands (Forward, Schalke 04, free)

Ronald Waterreus (Goalkeeper, released)

Sotirios Kyrgiakos (Defender, released)

Alex Rae (Midfielder, Dundee, as manager)

Ross McCormack (Forward, Motherwell)

* HEARTS

IN: Nobody

OUT: No first-team players

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