SCOTLAND’S top flight clubs have reached the midway point of their season, with all but four clubs (the St Johnstone v Motherwell and Hamilton v Kilmarnock fixtures are to be rearranged) having played each other twice in their 22 games this season.
As the players dust themselves down over the two week January shutdown before returning for the Scottish Cup Fourth Round weekend on 20/21 January, it’s time to analyse the season and where each team are in line with their pre-season expectations, and what they need going into the final five months of the campaign.
On the face of it, the League is shaping up as most people expected. Celtic out in front, Aberdeen and Rangers fighting it out for second place with the Edinburgh sides tucked in behind them targeting a place in Europe. The other seven clubs, meanwhile, are battling it out for the last top six position and to avoid the relegation and playoff positions, where only nine points separate sixth to twelfth.
What is unusual this season is that most clubs are picking up more points on their travels, with seven clubs having collected more points away from home than on their own ground this season. These stats show that teams are more suited to playing on the counter attack than taking the game to the opposition.
So what clubs are underperforming and who are punching above their weight this season?
Last seasons achievements were always going to be difficult to emulate for the Invincible Treble Winners. That invincible tag was removed in emphatic style at Tynecastle recently after 69 domestic games without defeat, and they are 13 points worse off than this stage last season, eight of them being dropped at Parkhead. However, they still hold a commanding eight point advantage at the top of the table and have the Betfred Cup in the bag, keeping hopes of back to back trebles alive, plus they secured European Football in 2018 by finishing 3rd in their Champions League campaign, dropping into the Europa League. Brendan Rodgers will be expected to bring in more new faces in addition to German defender Martin Compper as they seek to advance in the Europa League and prepare for four qualifying rounds in next seasons Champions League, in addition to continuing their domestic dominance.
The biggest achievement for the Dons this season was retaining the services of manager Derek McInnes – TWICE! Firstly, he turned down an approach from Sunderland in the summer then last month he opted to stay at Pittodrie despite an approach from boyhood heroes Rangers, to the despair of a media-driven campaign to take him to Ibrox. On the pitch, his side have been in transition with many new signings being bedded in. Going out of the Europa League Third Qualifying Round for the fourth year running was a blow, as was their timid Betfred Cup exit to Motherwell, and the effects of the managerial speculation affected their form with just two wins in a seven game period. However, a run of four wins and a draw in the last six games have given them a solid base going into the winter break and they’ll be hoping to pick that form up when they return to gain a fourth consecutive runners up position and possibly one step further in the Scottish Cup.
Where do you start? Europe saw the disastrous defeat to Progres Niederkorn was the beginning of the end of Pedro Caixinha’s reign, with the contradictory motormouth manager dismissed days after they exited the League Cup to Motherwell. They then took SIX WEEKS to make their move for their only candidate to replace Caixinha, only to be humiliated in McInnes turning the job done. Now, Graeme Murty has the job until the end of the season at least and his record against the fellow top five sides is decent with victories against Aberdeen (twice), Hibs and Hearts. However, defeats to Hamilton, Dundee, St Johnstone and Kilmarnock summarise the problems they have maintain8ng consistency and is something Murty will need to address if they are to finish above the Dons and keep the job beyond the summer.
After a three year absence, Hibs have made a solid return to the top flight and are still in contention to finish in the top three, replicating the impacts of Hearts and Rangers respectively when they were promoted to the Premiership. Typically, Hibs form has been erratic, to the annoyance of manager Neil Lennon, and their lack of a recognised goal scorer has cost them in certain games, as well as a lapse in concentration at the back. If they can sort things out at both ends of the park, they have enough in their armour to push Aberdeen and Rangers close for the two guaranteed Europa League slots available in the League.
It was a turbulent start to the season for Hearts. Ian Cathro was sacked just hours into August, the new main stand at Tynecastle took longer than expected to be completed and results were indifferent at the start of Craig Levein’s second stint as manager, one he reluctantly accepted following the dismissal of Cathro. Recent results have improved with a six game run without conceding a goal, beating a club record, and they ended Celtic’s 69 game unbeaten run in emphatic style with that 4-0 win. The development of their young players like Harry Cochrane has been eye catching and Levein will be hoping to continue on that solid base as Hearts push closer to their city rivals in the table.
Without doubt, the biggest transformation of a club this season. Kilmarnock looked destined for another season battling against relegation when the board made the bold move in appointing Steve Clarke as manager in October. Since then, it’s been an upward curve for the Ayrshire club stuck in a rut for so long, losing just twice since his arrival, being unbeaten away from home and have even won three matches in a row at Rugby Park, dispelling the myth that the plastic pitch was a curse on the club. Kris Boyd has rediscovered his form where it matters and Killie look as though they will be in the frame for the last top six position and preserving their 25 year stay in the top flight.
After a solid start to the season that saw them pick up ten points from the first four games, Saints form has been erratic this campaign that has seen their regular top six spot under jeopardy for the first time since 2011. Away from home, the form has been better and saw a first League win at Ibrox since 1971 but there has been no home win since September, something that needs to be addressed. The biggest challenge, however, will be keeping manager Tommy Wright, who is in the frame to succeed Michael O’Neill as Northern Ireland manager should O’Neill take the Scotland job, or any other for that matter. Whilst he’s there, Wright has his biggest challenge in ensuring St Johnstone don’t get sucked into a relegation battle, something still entirely possible at this stage.
The first quarter of the season couldn’t have gone much better for The Steelmen as they blitzed their way to the Betfred Cup Final and sat in fourth position in the table, seeing manager Stephen Robinson handed a new deal in the process. Their Final defeat to Celtic started a dismal run of nine games without a victory, that has seen them hauled back into a relegation fight just four points ahead of second bottom Partick Thistle. The run has also coincided with Louis Moult’s sale to Preston North End and the goals drying up in his recent absence. Robinson will be making a new striker an absolute priority if he is to stop Well’s slump and regain the form that catapulted them to Hampden, otherwise it could be a long five months ahead.
Written off once again at the start of the season, Accies continue to defy the odds by sitting above the bottom two positions. Their away form has been the highlight with some terrific performances at Easter Road and Ibrox in particular. David Templeton is a man reborn as he goes through his longest injury-free period for years and his influence has been crucial in keeping Accies above water. They’re still not safe yet but similar performances in the second half of the season and Martin Canning will be leading his side into a fifth top flight campaign, which would be a remarkable achievement for Hamilton.
Neil McCann was always going to find the permanent transformation from pundit to manager a testing one and that’s proven to be the case as Dundee fight to keep themselves out of relegation trouble. There has been an upturn in performances and results in recent months, with a home victory over Rangers being the standout result. The form of Mark O’Hara from midfield has been key to them sitting outside the dreaded playoff and relegation positions and they’ll be looking for more help in the forward areas, where they have struggled, if they are to survive and, potentially, do their bit to have the Dundee Derby back in the top flight next season.
Last seasons top six spot was always going to be a hard act for Thistle to follow, as has proven to be the case so far as they are embroiled in a relegation battle. Losing star defender Liam Lindsay was a blow, emphasised by the fact they have the leakiest defence in the League, whilst summer signings Miles Storey and Connor Sammon have struggled to make an impact at the other end. Patrick’s home form could be the key to their survival prospects and the fact they’ve won their last three matches at Firhill, which has seen them climb off the bottom of the table, will give them a boost going into the second half of the season.
After an indifferent start to the season, Chairman Roy McGregor decided to press the panic button and sacked Jim McIntyre, 18 months after he’d delivered the clubs first major honour in the League Cup Final against Hibs. McGregor acted quickly by bringing in former Burnley and Bolton manager Owen Coyle. However, after an encouraging start, County have embarked on a poor run that’s seen them slip bottom of the table, three points adrift of Partick having lost to them on Saturday before the winter break. Coyle will be expected to be active this transfer window to seek the reinforcements required to get County out of relegation trouble.
As the players rest their weary legs over these next two weeks, they’ll also be reflecting on the first half of the campaign and what they need to do second half of the season to help their respective sides.
There are no certainties over these next five months as the season heads towards its conclusion. Whilst it’s likely the title will end up at Parkhead again, the race for second, the top six and battle for survival are all very intriguing to keep fans interested in the top flight.
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