Scottish Football: Smith's home quest

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The Independent Online
RANGERS attempt to relaunch their spluttering title defence today at the start of a holiday programme which traditionally sorts out the contenders from the also-rans.

The creaking champions meet Heart of Midlothian at Ibrox, and then face a New Year's Day encounter with Celtic at Parkhead.

'The next two games are as important as any we are likely to play all season,' Walter Smith, the Rangers manager, said. When his side beat Hearts 2-1 on the opening day of the season, they were unbeaten at home in 17 months. Since then, they have averaged just a point a game at what was once their fortress and have lost to Kilmarnock, Motherwell, Celtic and Dundee United.

Smith can recall his captain, Richard Gough, and John Brown after injury today. 'Our away form has been up to the standard of a championship-winning team, but the home form has been the worst aspect of our season,' the manager said. 'We've given away far too many silly goals. Despite that, we still find ourselves in a position as joint leaders just after half-way.

The Rangers midfielder, Ian Ferguson, is suspended, while Ally McCoist, Dave McPherson, Ian Durrant and David Robertson will not be seen again until well into the New Year. Hearts, who have won only one of their last 15 games and are fourth from bottom, may call up their international defender, Craig Levein, out since an injury against Rangers in November.

A frostbound Fir Park has already caused the postponement of Celtic's visit to Motherwell. The only matches that are likely to defeat the severe winter weather are those at venues with under-soil heating: Ibrox, Tannadice Park (Dundee United v Aberdeen), Easter Road (Hibernian v Partick Thistle), and Hampden Park (Queen's Park v Alloa).