It’s a marathon, not a sprint, but the title race is underway
The phoney war is officially over. Eight games into the league season, and finally Scotland’s big guns are cutting to the chase to hunt down leaders Hearts. Celtic, Rangers, Hibs and Aberdeen racked up 19 of the 26 goals scored in the Premiership at the weekend. Kilmarnock may have been the poor relations in the scoring stakes but the 2-1 win over Dundee banks the same three points as the rest, leaving them, like Celtic, just three points off the summit. In fact, only seven points now separate seventh-place Aberdeen from Craig Levein’s top dogs. And looming ever closer in the Tynecastle boss’s rear view mirror is the sight of all his rivals clicking through the gears. Sunday’s 3-1 defeat at Ibrox to Hearts will have stung, no doubt about that. But the real test for Levein will be to see how his players react to the pain of their first league loss. Character is key in football and Hearts will require the services of a mettle detector when they face Aberdeen after the international break.
Statistically, the most important weekend gains were made by a Rangers side still striving to overcome the domestic inconsistencies that have blotted Steven Gerrard’s early Rangers report card. But the comprehensive 3-1 dismissal of Hearts suggests that a learning curve – and the painful lessons of dropping points at Aberdeen, Celtic and Livingston – may finally have been absorbed. Helped, it should be said, by the bounce provided by results in Europe. In contrast, Celtic rebounded from their European defeat in the country that gave us The Sound of Music by orchestrating a 6-0 demolition of a St Johnstone side that already looks like being cut adrift from the top sides. Hibs, though, are beginning to look like a team mustering genuine title credentials. Neil Lennon’s players have responded to the rollicking handed out by their manager after losing to Livingston a few weeks back by winning four league games on the spin. Lennon has made shrewd moves to replace a midfield shorn of John McGinn, Dylan McGeough and Scott Allan. Brought in to help fill the gap, Stevie Mallan looks the real deal, already drawing flattering comparisons with Lubo Moravcic from his manager. Lennon has also fashioned a team that is playing scintillating football. Sunshine on Leith, then, for the Easter Road support. But there could yet be a dark cloud on the horizon. If Rodgers is tempted away from Celtic – and he will be one day – Lennon’s return to Glasgow’s east end will undoubtedly form part of the conversation between Peter Lawwell and Dermot Desmond. The Northern Irishman has done an outstanding job rebuilding a managerial reputation that had come off its hinges. And it seems unlikely he would reject overtures from a club which imbues his football DNA. Rodgers, naturally enough, continues to swat away ongoing speculation over his future. The managerial merry-go-round in England rarely stops. This week it was Aston Villa. Tempting perhaps but no chance. The English Championship can easily become a graveyard for football managers if you get mired if you cannot escape the quicksand fast. At the same time, Rodgers’ stock is simply not high enough for him to be realistically quoted for, say, Spurs should Mauricio Pochettino end up at Old Trafford. Which makes delivering title number eight for Celtic all the more imperative. And, judging by the competition so far, they are far from being in a league of their own.
Rodgers keeps an eye on four-goal hero James Forrest. Pictures by Bill Heaney
James Forrest should be restored to Scotland’s active duty roster and handed a licence to thrill for this Thursday’s Nations League clash Israel this week. Dropped for the last match against Albania, Forrest’s four-goal first-half haul against St Johnstone at the weekend suggests he can be the agent of fortune Alex McLeish needs to shoot down the Israelis. McLeish – M to his Hampden paymasters – needs a player with a view to a kill, one who is firing on all fronts. And Forrest, brimful of confidence, can be the man with the golden gun in Haifa. Okay, let’s get serious for a moment. Victory in the northern Israeli port would keep Scotland’s ambitions on an even keel. Two wins from two matches, no matter the opposition, is to be welcomed. Defeat, though, to a team that has already lost to Albania, would see us back in choppy waters. Forrest, like a lot of wingers, can be frustrating. On his game, though – as he showed at McDiarmid Park – he is unplayable. McLeish drew the usual ancestral flak when he omitted Forrest and Celtic team-mate Leigh Griffiths from the Albanian starting line-up. But Forrest is on fire and should be press-ganged back into service for his country. When the squad gathers, McLeish ought to single out Forrest and tell him he’s a first pick for Thursday. And M’s word should be his bond.
OUT ON HIS ARCHIE … BUT ALAN ‘S STATUS REMAINS IN PLACE AT FIRHILL
Alan Archibald’s departure from Partick Thistle was sadly inevitable the second referee Nick Walsh blew for full-time in the 2-0 defeat to Ross County at Firhill. Archibald is one of Scottish football’s good guys. A man who actually deserves the soubriquet legend along Maryhill Road. But you can’t kid fans. Thistle’s results this season have been woeful. And a glance at the Championship table on Saturday night – they are third bottom – compelled the Firhill board to act. It’s easy to point the finger at the manager and the players but maybe things had just turned stale. Archibald, the second-longest serving boss in Scotland should have quit when the club were relegated last summer via the play-offs. A time, perhaps, to take stock of a career that once drew admiring glances from English clubs. Whoever comes will find a club with a proper boardroom structure and sound financing – and the opportunity to revive a team that should be fighting for promotion instead of scrapping to avoid the ignominy of relegation into the third tier of Scottish football.
DO NOT PASS GO…BUT MOURINHO WILL STILL COLLECT WHEN MAN U AXE FALLS
Beleaguered Jose Mourinho played all his get-out-jail-free cards in one fell swoop during Saturday’s comeback 3-2 victory over lowly Newcastle. But it won’t stop him from being a victim of the board games at Manchester United. The manager formerly known as The Special One was facing the last roll of the dice before Alexis Sanchez emerged from the Old Trafford Twilight Zone to head a last-gasp winner. But don’t put your house on Mourinho surviving. The only certainty is he’ll walk away with more than just Monopoly money.
UFC BRAWL EPITOMISES A SPORT THAT IS NO MORE THAN LICENSED THUGGERY
It’s called the Ultimate Fighting Championship – and on Saturday night it lived up to its own pathetic rhetoric. Conor McGregor’s reign as the sport’s poster boy ended in disgraceful scenes at the end of his defeat to Khabib Nurmagomedov. (Surely this is a Countdown conundrum…not an actual name). Moments after clinching the fighting-ending choke and forcing the Irishman to tap out, Nurmagomedov scaled the octagon cage and launched himself at McGregor’s team. A brawl ensued between the two sides, with fans surrounding the scene and police officers attempting to restore order. But the shadowy figures who control this so-called sport got what they wanted: maximum publicity. McGregor paid the price for weeks of trash talking that often crossed every PC line ever drawn. Nurmagomedov responded in kind, ensuring a Molotov cocktail when the two let loose feelings of pent-up rage and anger. I don’t get UFC. Never have. It’s just violence for the sake of violence. But when whispers of a rematch between McGregor and Nurmagomedov become louder, money will hold sway. Easy dosh with society’s knuckle-draggers happy to stump up for the privilege of watching licensed thuggery.