Friday, September 22, 2006

Here We Go Le Guen


If, at 2.30pm tomorrow, Paul Le Guen finds himself on the losing side in his first Old Firm derby, he can at least take consoloation in the details of his victorious opposite number's first twelve months as Celtic manager. Thirteen months ago, the miserable opening weeks of Gordon Strachan's tenure as Celtic manager continued when his nine-man team lost 3-1 to Rangers in last season's first meeting of the two sides.

That game proved something of a watershed in Strachan's first term: his team subsequently went on a 13 match unbeaten run - which included a double victory over Rangers in league and CIS Cup duty in November - that did much to give Celtic the initiative in the title race.

Tomorrow's clash comes much later into the season, but Le Guen's first months as Rangers manager have been almost as traumatic as Strachan's. His side have only impressed in one match, the 2-0 defeat of Hearts at Ibrox, have drawn thrice and reserved their poorest display of the season for the defeat at Hibernian last Sunday, a mere six days before the definitive club fixture in Scottish football.

Le Guen's reputation, garnered from his title-winning and Champions League-excelling years at Lyon, was hefty. His recruitment by Rangers was seen as an excellent piece of business by the Ibrox club, but, in a summer marked by underinvestment in comparison with their ancient cross-city rivals, amounted to pretty much the only positive thing achieved by his new bosses over the close season.

Where Celtic's robust transfer campaign saw chief exectuive Peter Lawell and Strachan doing business with Chelsea, Real Madrid and PSV Eindhoven, Rangers recruiting centred ratherly strangely on the unlikely source of Austria Vienna. Libor Sionko, Sasa Papac and Filip Sebo all arrived from that club, bolstered by loan signings from Manchester United in Lee Martin and Philip Bardsley, and young Lyon midfielder Jeremy Clement.

While a transition period for any new manager is understandable, a leeway which also applies to new signings - whatever their pedigree - Le Guen has already been troubled by what could be called 'the Kris Boyd dilemma'. Le Guen seems clearly not to fancy the prolific striker, feeling that his predatory abilities do not make up for a non-existent contribution outside the box. But Boyd - an extremely committed player and popular with the supporters - continues to score goals when selected, raising an early challenge to Le Guen's will to inforce his own vision on the team.

Le Guen will be aware by now of the finite patience which is generally stored within the walls of Ibrox. This tolerance will only be more strained if a perception develops that Celtic are improving at a higher rate. While anything is possible in tomorrow's match, the sudden adjustment, or reversal, in the respective clubs' financial strength means that Le Guen's best efforts on the pitch may be futile in the long term until his club can again afford to match their rivals' spending power.

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