Scottish Cup Quarter Final fixtures take precedence this weekend with eight clubs vying to be at Hampden in April and on the second last day in May but what lies in store for the forty-two clubs in the Scottish Professional Football Leagues and will everything go to form?
Part one looks at the runners and riders in the top two divisions with part two, coming tomorrow, featuring League One and League Two with a small focus on the new pyramid structure that is in place and what that could entail for a Lowland or Highland league club.
Celtic’s convincing win over second placed Aberdeen cemented their position at the top of the Scottish Premiership withstanding a fantastic first forty-five minutes by Derek McInnes’ men and sweeping to a great result in an eagerly anticipated clash. Celtic will ultimately win the title I imagine and they boast the best form of all sides with a brilliant six wins from their last six league games, averaging over two goals a game throughout the course of the season and conceding only one in every two games.
Celtic, Aberdeen, Inverness and Dundee United have all played some free-flowing football this season and the players involved deserve all the credit for that. Adam Rooney is the top goalscorer in the league with 13 strikes so far and the flame-haired hitman has helped propel Aberdeen to the heady heights of second. United will miss suspended striker Nadir Ciftci in their upcoming triple header against Celtic, he has notched ten goals in the games he has played (26 league games) and Tayside rivals Dundee’s Greg Stewart – signed from Championship side Cowdenbeath – has twelve goals to his name as he looks to help The Dee’s secure a top six berth.
The Celts, Dons, Caley and the Arabs all look nailed on for a place in the top six come the season’s split although United will hope to arrest their slump in form only one win since they lost their prize duo of Gary Mckay-Steven and Stuart Armstrong that coming against Stranraer at Stair Park in the Scottish Cup – going further back they’ve only won once in the league in their last six. They are high goalscorers and they will be hoping that stat can aide their quest to fight for honours come the seasons end, notching an impressive 1.81 goals per game with twenty seven in forty nine second only to Champions Celtic has seen them in the top half for much of the season.
Caley have performed well against their main competition claiming seven wins from their twelve encounters against top half teams and will hope to take that form in to an exciting climax to the season which also sees them with home advantage on Saturday in one of the four Scottish Cup quarter finals. They may have sold Billy McKay to Wigan Athletic in January but John Hughes has them playing some lovely stuff and have surpassed my own expectations when tipping them to struggle this season. They will hope their last two results have been nothing more than a blip as they go in hunt for European football next time around.
These four leave two spots still to be claimed and whilst finishing fifth or sixth or even seventh is not an honour in itself the way the league is set up provides hope for those currently in midtable obscurity.
Hamilton, Dundee, St Johnstone and Kilmarnock all harbour hopes of joining the teams above in the top six and earning the greater financial rewards that these positions bring. The Accies have struggled since Alex Neil’s departure and have failed to win in six games as new boss Martin Canning faces a real baptism of fire.
They are the fourth highest goalscorers in the league but have only scored one goal in their last eight league games, in that time Tony Andreu has followed former boss Neil to Norwich City and Mickael Antoine-Curier has left the club with cumbersome Jason Scotland returning to lead the line.
Canning must find a quick solution or run the risk of losing out to the chasing pack.
Dundee’s form of late has been consistent and they look well placed to steal a top six place under the guidance of highly rated coach Paul Hartley however they will need to improve on their two wins in thirteen games against top half teams if they are to make any sort of impact in the latter stages of the season.
St. Johnstone will be looking to score more goals in their remaining league matches having only scored a lowly twenty-four in their twenty-seven matches played so far (up to Tuesday 3rd March). A strike rate of 0.89 a game and this is where their problems lie, Tommy Wright will be hoping his strikers find some form and they can help last season’s Scottish Cup winners to be playing at the right end of the league once again.
Kilmarnock have been rejuvenated of late under Gary Locke and they may yet drag themselves in to the top six but with games running out they will need to win the majority of their games before the split or face the prospect of being in the bottom six for the second season running. They narrowly avoided the dreaded play-off last season with victory on the final day at Easter Road, they should be safe from any of that worry this time around but there are plenty who will be seriously worried about the prospects of facing such a clash.
This promises to be an exciting finale to the season with three teams locked together on twenty-one points as St. Mirren, Motherwell, Ross County bid to avoid the dreaded drop. Of course the added worry of a possible play off with a Championship side is a headache that these clubs could do without. Hibernian suffered at the hands of Hamilton Academical last season which seen them demoted from the top flight and the three clubs mentioned plus Partick Thistle who are only seven points clear of the bottom three will be hoping to avoid a similar outcome.
Partick Thistle and Motherwell are struggling for form of late and with only one win in their last six league games. Thistle have also only managed three wins in thirteen league encounters with clubs in the bottom half. This is a stat they will need to better if they are to keep themselves safe from danger. Thistle’s Kris Doolan with seven goals is doing his best to keep his side above water but their impressive scoring record of 1.30 per game is unfortunately matched at the other end with Thistle conceding exactly the same amount as they have scored. They play attractive open football but maybe Alan Archibald will look to plug the gaps a wee bit more to ensure their safety above all else. Thistle have won three games by four or more goals this season but to improve on their recent form the emphasis will surely be on defending what they’ve got.
Motherwell and Ross County are the leakiest teams in the league conceding fifty-one and fifty two respectively in their twenty-seven games played. The Lanarkshire club struggle at both ends of the pitch however scoring only twenty goals in their twenty-seven matches, losing three of these games by four or more. County have lost four or more but can point to a slight upturn in their fortunes, of late, under Jim McIntyre. Both clubs will be looking to improve on their travels only winning twice, respectively, away from home all season.
The other club in real trouble are Gary Teale’s St. Mirren and they simply have to make their home games count – one win in fifteen does not look good whichever way you read and to pull themselves clear of the dangerzone picking up the points in their four remaining home games this season will be imperative. They need veteran striker Steven Thompson to give them a boost and his return will hopefully see them increase their goals for tally with only twenty-two strikes in twenty-eight games. Local boy Thompson has been a huge miss for his team but they have decent young players and the return of the experienced former Arab could be enough to guide them to safety.
Top Six: Celtic, Aberdeen, Inverness, Dundee United, Saint Johnstone, Dundee
Premiership play-off: Motherwell
Relegated: Ross County
Heart of Midlothian are home and hosed as they look to return to the Premiership at the first of time asking. I can’t see the Gorgie side blowing a twenty point lead and with all going well at Tynecastle they could be champions as early as Easter Sunday when they travel to play Rangers at Ibrox. Hearts have taken the league by storm, losing only one of their twenty-six games played and averaging 2.85 goals per match. No-one can take it away from them and their consistency levels are the main reason why they will be crowned Champions. Few would bet against them recording victories of the sort that has seen them win by four or more on 6 occasions between now and the season’s end.
The race to be in the play-offs is where the real interest lies in the Championship and with Hibernian, Rangers, Falkirk and Queen of the South all hoping to be involved it promises to be a nerve-wracking and interesting end to a long gruelling season.
Significantly at the time of writing Hibernian hold a four point lead, in second place, over closest rivals Rangers. Rangers lurch from one disaster to another and they will be hoping Friday’s General Meeting will go someway to alleviating the turmoil surrounding the former giant of the Scottish game. The Gllasgow club have three games in hand on their capital counterparts and they must take full points in these games plus something from their match at Easter Road in a couple of weeks time to have a chance of finishing second in my opinion.
Rangers have lost six of their ten matches against teams from the top half of the league and they have found this Championship harder than they possibly imagined but you have to wonder how much off-field issues are playing their part. Scoring forty-five in twenty-three, just short of two goals a game is an impressive record but just like play-off rivals Hibs it is a long way off the feats of Hearts.
Hibernian who suffered an indifferent start to the season have developed a meaner side to them of late and confidence is key in their latest run which sees them unbeaten in their last six, winning five and building momentum every week. The early part of the season has cost Hibs big time but they can’t look back, they have to focus on the tough job at hand and ensure that their sharp attack and strong defensive records continue as they fight for promotion.
In Jason Cummings they have the leagues joint highest goalscorer and he is backed up by ten goal Congolese striker Dominique Malonga. The Hibees average 1.96 goals per game and the two strikers along with their teammates have enjoyed similar success in shutting out teams conceding only twenty-three in twenty-six games (0.88/game).
Queen of the South and Falkirk join them in hoping to be part of the play-offs although Falkirk sit behind the Doonhamers on goal difference just now it is the Bairns who are the form side out of the two. They are unbeaten in their last six however too many draws (four from six) are hindering their play-off ambitions.
The men from Dumfries have stuttered of late picking up only eight points from the last eighteen available but they can call upon Derek Lyle and Gavin Reilly who, like Cummings, have bagged eleven league goals. They will need this pair to start doing the business away from Palmerston Park if they are to make a serious promotion bid as they have only picked up maximum points three times when on the road.
Falkirk will need to defend their own goal if they are to pip their main competitors – conceding on average 1.35 goals per game. Home form is also poor for Peter Houston’s side, they have only recorded five wins from fourteen on their plastic pitch.
The bottom three
Livingston, Cowdenbeath and Alloa are facing a survival battle with Livi currently marooned six points adrift of the other pair as a result of being deducted five points for failing to pay a tax bill back in November.
The bottom three all possess similar records and two wins for each club at their home grounds is a point to note when it comes to recognising why they are struggling. Scoring less than a goal per game all of the clubs need to find that scoring instinct from somewhere. Alloa have managed a paltry nineteen from twenty-six. The highest figure – 0.96 per game – will give basement side Livingston some hope that they can score the goals which will see them achieve safety under the guidance of former striker Mark Burchill.
Cowdenbeath will be hoping to reduce the goals conceded column, an astonishing sixty-six in twenty-five at 2.64 per game is a damaging statistic whichever way you look at it. Confidence must also be at an all time low following their ten nil mauling at the hands of champions in waiting Hearts. Jimmy Nicholl will be hoping for a quick fix who narrowly avoided relegation last year defeating Dunfermline over two legs in the Championship play-off.
Champions: Heart of Midlothian
Play-offs: Hibernian, Rangers, Falkirk
Championship play-off: Livingston