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Rob Maclean: 'Tis season to take comfort at home.

Byline: Rob Maclean

WAS it only 12 days ago we were getting carried away with the crazy concept of three Scottish teams flying the flag in Europe beyond the turn of the year?

'Nurse, the screens,' should have been the response at that point and reality has been hammered home in the last week-and-a-half like an after-match kick, allegedly, from Hearts boss John Robertson.

Europe's elite will carry on without us in the knockout stages of the Champions League and the UEFA Cup although let me just reconsider the use of that word 'elite'.

There are 48 teams still involved in Europe and while our top sides don't stand too close a comparison with Chelsea, Barcelona or Juventus, it's not all glitz and glamour from here on in.

Grazer and Heerenveen have made it and they're hardly giants of the game. Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk and TSV Alemania Aachen are big names but only on the Scrabble board.

So it has to be sad we're posted missing for the closing stages though maybe only Rangers should feel genuinely aggrieved they've not made it.

As I said here last Sunday, Celtic were outspent by Shakhtar and outclassed by Milan and Barca. Hearts did well to say in contention into the last round but let's be honest - Feyenoord, Schalke and Basel are at a different level in terms of resources.

Rangers blew it, as Alex McLeish said himself. They couldn't have had a better draw but having gone to the brink of qualification with two wins, crashed out with defeats to Auxerre and AZ Alkmaar.

There's no doubt Rangers have a stronger team than they did last season but their past two UEFA Cup performances have put into perspective the progress they've made.

This is the point at which we're meant to dive into a depression about our winter of discontent with only our oh-so-predictable SPL to drag us through the long, dark nights.

But just now there's next to nothing predictable about the league. I'd be lying if I said we were suddenly watching top-quality football every weekend but you can't argue it's not competitive.

I'd challenge anyone to say with any great certainty Celtic or Rangers WILL take the championship.

The top two have spilled more points than expected and will continue to do so.

Inverness, Dundee, Dundee United, Hearts and Hibs have all had some joy against one or other of the Old Firm. Aberdeen have taken points off both.

There's not much to be had at Ibrox or Celtic Park - the Big Two have each won eight league games out of nine at home - but there's renewed hope for the Other Ten these days when Celtic and Rangers hit the road.

There's still a gap but it's closed a bit. The fear factor's not what it used to be. The superpowers have discovered vulnerability.

The first half of the season has been the stuff of dreams for Aberdeen fans. So dramatic has been their team's rehabilitation there's every reason to fancy the Dons' chances in their Old Firm double-header at Pittodrie next month.

Jimmy Calderwood's team are leading the chase for third spot but three others look likely to be in the shakedown.

Hearts' commitments in Europe have impacted on their league showing but expect the Tynecastle team to be more focussed on league points in the next few months.

Belief is growing at Hibs they can make it into one of the UEFA Cup places.

The squad looks better from week to week and don't forget two of Scotland's top young midfielders Scott Brown and Kevin Thomson will be back soon to give Tony Mowbray even more choice.

Motherwell is another club that seems to have acquired more strength in depth, largely thanks to the Fir Park youth development production line and they too could be ready to contest third place.

And there are no shortage of contenders in relegation land either.

After a miserable start that produced only one win in the opening 10 games, the Inverness revival has thrown the cat among the pigeons.

Far from being marooned in the basement as seemed likely a couple of months back the Highlanders are showing survival instincts that will cause concern for Livingston, Dunfermline and the two Dundee clubs.

It's not unthinkable the relegation scrap, like the title race and the battle for the other European places, will go right down to the wire.

Am I getting carried away again? If this sounds like a party political broadcast on behalf of the excellent Setanta Sports SPL coverage, I'm sorry.

By the way, there are some great subscription offers for Christmas ...

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Calderwood: Big; changes at Pittodrie
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Sunday Mail (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Dec 19, 2004
Words:778
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