FRESH from their mid-season break and last weekends Scottish Cup ties, Premiership action returns this weekend.
Although the title race is already effectively over, with the fat lady well and truly warming up, there is still enough interest to keep punters betting on outcomes such as who will finish best of the rest, take up the last top six places and who will be going down to the Championship.
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So with Celtic pretty much out of sight with a 19 point lead, a game in hand and only dropping two points all season, the only real debate is will they go the campaign unbeaten? Their squad is way superior to everyone else, so much so that there have been occasions where Brendan Rodgers has made multiple changes and it’s not affected their domination. The only hope is that they switch off then their opponents may sense an opportunity to steal an unlikely win and prevent them gaining the Invincible’s tag.
With Celtic strolling towards six in a row, three clubs are embroiled in a race to finish second – Rangers, Aberdeen and Hearts.
Despite having a significantly higher budget to their rival clubs, Rangers have not been convincing in their return to the top flight and has seen Mark Warburton’s position come under scrutiny from sections of the demanding Ibrox following.
The fact they sit second is partly down to the amount of points each team is taking off each other and their home form, where only Celtic have won this season and their performances against fellow challengers Aberdeen and Hearts at Ibrox has been enough to lift them to second in the League. The hope for Rangers is that they can find a settled line up and go on a run that sees them pull away to secure their minimum target for the season.
Aberdeen have been runners up the past two campaigns, therefore the expectation of Derek McInnes’s men is to be there again, and the argument is there may not be a better opportunity to finish above Rangers in the table.
The Dons form has been up and down. A mixed start to the season was followed by a good run of form that included a run to the League Cup Final against Celtic. Another dip followed after their Hampden defeat but went into the break on the back of three consecutive victories, including an impressive showing at Tynecastle, that leaves them two points behind Rangers with a game in hand. Aberdeen will be hoping that they can keep hold of Johnny Hayes amidst interest from Cardiff and that loan signing Ryan Christie can make a similar, if not better, impact to James Maddison, who returned to Norwich after a successful loan spell.
Hearts on the other hand are in a period of transition following Robbie Neilson’s shock departure to MK Dons, resulting in the appointment of Ian Cathro. The respected young coach is enduring a difficult learning curve as Head Coach with the Jambos only winning one of six games in all competitions, and now has to build a new defence with the departures of Alim Ozturk and Igor Rossi and the unfortunate injury sustained to Callum Paterson.
Cathro has a lot of work to do if he is to rejuvenate the Hearts side back into contention for that runners up position and win over the demanding Jambos support.
St Johnstone look certain to secure yet another top six position but the remaining spot to relegation is not so clear cut, with only seven points separating Ross County in sixth and their Highland rivals Inverness Caledonian Thistle, currently propping up the League.
County will be expected not to be dragged into a relegation dogfight, particularly with the goals of the Premiership top goal scorer Liam Boyce, and they’ll be expecting a second consecutive top six position.
The goals of Louis Moult will be key to where Motherwell finish this season, and certainly do enough to pull them away from the threat of exiting Scotland’s top flight for the first time since 1985. Dundee have enough under Paul Hartley to suggest that they’ll be ok for another season, though they will need to unearth another duo to replace Kane Hemings and Greg Stewart, with the goals drying up in their absence.
However, predictions on the other four clubs – Partick Thistle, Kilmarnock, Hamilton and Inverness – is not so clear cut, with the lack of a regular goal scorer the common denominator for these sides.
Partick did go into the break on a great run of form but can be erratic as well which suggests they are still very much in a battle to avoid relegation and the playoff. Hamilton have drawn the most matches and are lacking that cutting edge to help them turn one point into three, something Martin Canning will need to work on with his players if they are to earn an incredible fourth season in the top flight.
Inverness haven’t won since September and rookie manager Richie Foran will be desperate to get hold of a decent striker who can haul them out of trouble. Saturday’s home match with Partick is already a must win if they are to give themselves hope of staying up and end this dismal run.
Kilmarnock, on the other hand, are in a very worrying position on and off the pitch. Manager Lee Clark signed 17 players at the start of the season and has signed another five in this window so far, not something that fills the Killie fans with confidence that he knows his best team. To top it all, they’ve just sold top goal scorer Souleymane Coulibally for £800k, good money for a player they got for nothing but getting a replacement is going to be very difficult, and they need someone to bang in the goals quickly to keep their head above water for another season.
Given the way results have been going in the top flight – excluding the dominance of Celtic that is – it’s very difficult to predict what’s going to happen between now and May.
Who’s finishing second? Who’s making up the top six? Who’s going down and who’s going through the trauma of the playoff?