SPL preview: Contenders square off early

Hearts can signal their title ambitions when they take on champions Rangers in the Scottish Premier League season-opener on Saturday.The SPL has regularly been a two-horse between Glasgow rivals Rangers and Celtic, with the blue half of the city celebrating last season when Walter Smith’s side won the title.

Rangers, with Ally McCoist now in charge, and Celtic are again expected to be battling it out for the top prize, but Hearts manager Jim Jeffries has made a number of solid inclusions to his squad and looks to have a team capable of testing the top two.

That assertion will be put to the test on Saturday by the defending champions, who have brought in just one player during the off-season despite an injection of cash from new owner Craig Whyte.

Spaniard Juan Manuel Ortiz is the only new face at Ibrox this season, with El-Hadji Diouf, Richard Foster, Vladimir Weiss, and Kyle Bartley all departing.

However, McCoist’s side head into the season in good form following a 2-0 friendly victory over English Championship outfit Blackpool on Tuesday, and Hearts will need to be switched on from the outset if they are to cause an upset.

Elsewhere on the opening day of the season, Aberdeen host St Johnstone while Inverness travel to Hibernian.

Aberdeen boss Craig Brown will be hoping his side can continue to build on the improvements made since he took over in December 2010, and the hosts will be expecting a first-up win against a St Johnstone side which had the worst goal-scoring record in the SPL last season.

Celtic begin their campaign on Sunday with a trip to Edinburgh to face Hibernian.

Last season’s runners up have returned from a successful pre-season tour of Australia and manager Neil Lennon should have new signings Adam Matthews, Kelvin Wilson and Victor Wanyama to call on at the weekend.

Lennon’s side lost the title to Rangers on the final day of the season in May, and will be desperate to snap their rivals’ run of three straight championships.

On Monday, Dundee United kick off their campaign with a home match against Kilmarnock.

Peter Houston’s side finished just two points shy of third-placed Hearts last term, and the inclusion of experienced pair Willo Flood and John Rankin in midfield will have the Tannadice faithful confident they can build on their strong display last term.

Newly promoted Dunfermline host St Mirren in the final game of the round on Monday.