A few weeks ago it all looked very different. Hearts, Hibs and Kilmarnock were all giving the Old Firm a serious run for their money. Celtic were taking time to adjust to life under Gordon Strachan and Rangers were in freefall. Even now the league table suggests the first serious challenge to the Glaswegian duopoly for eight years is in full swing.
But the trend tells a different tale. Killie are clinging on to Rangers coat tails but certain to lose top scorer Kris Boyd and with any proceeds from a transfer going straight into shaving a slice off the club's £13M debt, will struggle to maintain their form. Hibs are capable of playing marvellous free-flowing football but just as likely to lose goals as much as they score them. No team can be consistent title challengers if they are dropping points to sides near the foot of the table on a regular basis. Losing 3-2 at home to Falkirk after being two ahead is not the hallmark of champions and, to be fair, boss Tony Mowbray knows it.
But it is the sudden and precipitous decline of Hearts which gives most cause for concern to those desperate to see a sustained challenge to the Old Firm. The all-conquering juggernaut that was George Burley's side at the beginning of the season has turned into a timid tractor under the tutelage of Graham Rix. Unless a major overhaul is undertaken during the January sales this is a team that will struggle to be more than average in the second half of the season.
Of course points in the bank mean more than predictions of rough times ahead and until recently it looked a banker bet that at the very worst one of the Edinburgh sides would finish in second place thus securing a berth in the Champions League qualifiers next term.
That though is no longer a certainty. The stuttering of the Edinburgh duo has had a dual effect on their Glasgow rivals. It has allowed Strachan's Celtic to strike the front without looking particularly convincing and before Roy Keane has so much as laced up a boot for them. And it has offered hope to a demoralised Rangers that all is not yet lost in their pursuit of the capital pair.
And that despite travails which might have sunk other Old Firm managers. Take Strachan. The disastrous start to his reign in Bratislava and Motherwell might have finished a lesser man. And not many would have put up with the indignities heaped upon Alex McLeish's head during Rangers record run of failure.
But these men were schooled in the Alex Ferguson footballing academy of Aberdeen, a place where failure was never an option and where the belief that success was achieved in the face of overwhelming opposition was central to the 'school's' ethos.
McLeish's predicament must be a source of bafflement to outside observers of our game. There was his Rangers team having just gone a record ten games without a win yet his players were cheered off the pitch! The reason of course was that the tenth match in this sequence was a 1-1 draw against Inter Milan and they had just qualified for the last sixteen of the Champions League.
That is the point where those who say McLeish carries more than his fair share of luck must have felt vindicated. Consider. Every time his Ibrox reign has been under question either McLeish manages to pull out a result which (temporarily) silences the critics or another team does the job for him.
Take last season. Celtic threw away the title with two minutes of the term to go. Rangers could have scored ten on the last day without effect. Celtic had to fail in order for the Gers to succeed. It was the same against Inter. This column doesn't join the gushing praise (much of it written by McLeish's harshest critics) that met their draw with Inter. In truth Rangers fate was decided elsewhere. A goal for Artmedia in Bratislava would have condemned Rangers to the UEFA Cup. Such an outcome would have had the critics sharpening their axes for Eck. Yet his side's performance against Inter would have been no different.
You'll also pardon us if we fail to join in the general celebrations that met the eventual outcome. Inter prepared for this game much the same way as Rangers would for a cup-tie against third division opposition if they were facing Celtic a few days later. And with less apprehension than even that for Inter faced no risk of elimination themselves. But with a Milan derby a few days later they sent out a sub-standard and uninterested side.
The truth is Rangers could scarcely have drawn a better group had they picked it themselves. This what we said back in September before a ball had been kicked.
"While no one expects them to finish ahead of Inter Milan the draw has been kind. Surely they too won't come to grief in Bratislava and with Porto a team in serious decline Rangers prospects for further progress could scarcely be brighter. The squad was strengthened before the transfer deadline at the end of August and if Rangers fail to make the last sixteen they will have no one to blame but themselves."
Looked at in that light the use of words such as 'historic' to describe Rangers progress seems hyperbolic in the extreme. Nor is this, as many reported, the first time a Scottish side has reached the last 16 of the Champions League. Rangers themselves reached the last eight (and arguably the last four) back in 1992-93 and have played in the last sixteen on subsequent occasions too. It is though the first time a Scottish club has qualified from the group phase - but that is another matter entirely.
Rangers' greatest achievement in Europe this season has been to avoid humiliation - something none of our other three contestants were able to do. The draw against Villareal does them no favours. The perception that the Spaniards are the weakest of the group winners may rebound against Rangers when the sides meet in the New Year. For at least a match against Barcelona, Chelsea or AC Milan would have been seen as a fitting reward for qualification with no expectation of going any further. But already the pundits are suggesting this is Rangers opportunity to reach the last eight. We'd be delighted if they did so but feel that once again the insular nature of Scottish football betrays itself. Just because Villareal don't carry the 'glamour' of some of the other teams in contention doesn't mean they aren't an excellent side. They defeated a Celtic team fresh from victory over Barcelona in the UEFA Cup two seasons ago and this term they have beaten Everton twice and drawn home and away with Manchester United.
At the time of writing they are third in La Liga. The strength of that competition can be gauged from the fact that its bottom club - Real Betis - were capable of beating England's top side Chelsea in the Champions League.
Of course Rangers may further strengthen their playing pool in January. But at least the outlook at Ibrox is not as grim as it looked at the start of December.
For this the Rangers supporters have one man to thank. No, not Alex McLeish, the much-maligned Peter Lovenkrands. It was the Dane who scored the goal against Inter (though as events turned out even a defeat would have sent Rangers through). And it was Lovenkrands again who rescued their League season with a hat-trick at Rugby Park and the only goal against Hearts in games where defeat would have consigned Rangers hopes of even second place to the dustbin.
Further proof that McLeish is a 'lucky' manager? Not in the refusal to award a penalty against Bob Malcolm at Rugby Park. Sadly, that's just run-of-the-mill in games involving the Old Firm. Rather the evidence is based on the fact that had McLeish and David Murray had their way Lovenkrands would no longer be darkening the Ibrox door. This was a player the club desperately tried to offload in the summer. It was only when English Premiership clubs like Middlesbrough baulked at the Dane's Rangers salary that he was reluctantly retained in Glasgow. Now he is the hero of the hour.
Perhaps 'lucky' is the wrong word to use when describing Alex McLeish though. Well-paid as he undoubtedly is, there are few who would have swapped places with him in the past couple of months. The level of vitriol, indeed hatred, spat out at the Rangers manager by large sections of his club's own supporters has been sickening to behold. There can't be many who undergo that experience who think themselves 'lucky.'
We'll end the year on a positive note though. So far this season attendances are up at eight of the twelve SPL clubs. In fact by December 10th SPL gates had already exceeded those for the entire season of 1981-82 which was the post-war low. And while the 1st and 3rd divisions are showing drops there has been a marked increase in the 2nd. For the eighth season in succession crowds will top the four million mark for League football in Scotland.
With that we'll take our leave for a peripatetic tour of the game, taking in not just the delights of the SPL but the lower reaches of the English game and the heights of the Catalan derby as well. If you're reading this before December 31st then all the best when it comes, if after that date then a Happy New Year to one and all.