After this midweek’s games the infamous Premiership split is nearby where the top teams in the league vie for the European places whilst the sides in the lower reaches battle for survival.
Although the title winners and the automatic relegation victims have already been decided, if not quite officially for the latter, there is still plenty up for grabs for all the other teams in the league. Here’s how I see things going in the final six or seven games of the season:
Battle for Europe
Although both Aberdeen and Motherwell look nailed-on certainties to finish in 2nd and 3rd spots, in one order or another, to take the two Europa League spots the race for Europe may well extend another spot down the table depending on the Scottish Cup winners (with a great explanation of the permutations on SPLstats’ blog).
The battle for second will be close, but I do feel that it is Aberdeen’s season to do it. They are a point ahead of Motherwell at the moment and will most likely face them at Pittodrie after the split. Motherwell are a great side, and have played well all season, but their form isn’t quite as steadfast as Aberdeen’s with little in the way of convincing wins since their New Year’s Day crushing of St. Johnstone. The teams are evenly matched, with Aberdeen winning two and Motherwell winning one of their five meetings this season all together, and they will be close at the end of the season but I think the groundswell of support for an Aberdeen revival will encourage them take the runners-up position.
The battle for 4th is also rather interesting, especially if it could end up having a European twist to it. Dundee United have had a somewhat hot and cold season with impressive runs of results followed by streaks of games without a win. Their attacking flair is hard to deny with players like Gary Mackay-Steven, Ryan Gauld and Nadir Ciftci playing incredibly well. Inverness haven’t seemed to consolidate under the leadership of John “Yogi” Hughes yet, and have had a horrible March with 4 defeats (including the loss on penalties to Aberdeen in the League Cup final), 2 draws and just 1 win coming against Partick Thistle, by the narrow margin of one goal. If they are to push Dundee United, they are going to need to get Billy McKay back into his shooting boots and hope for a United slump at the same time. Judging by fixtures earlier in the season, Caley will host the meeting with United after the split and will have to hope it goes better than the Scottish Cup Quarter-Final and last night’s game.
St. Johnstone secured their top six place last weekend by beating Hibs but will likely not be able to make up the nine point deficit to Dundee United in the remaining games. Although there won’t be another European adventure for the Saints next season, unless they win the Scottish Cup, they can take solace from the fact they’ve reached two cup semi-finals and the top six, a decent performance for Tommy Wright. Holding on to Stevie May, from what I’d expect would be strong English interest, over the summer might be St. Johnstone’s main concern after the Scottish Cup from here on.
It will be an exciting top six this year in terms of matches, but not in terms of teams switching places though, I don’t think. I predict that the order of the top six won’t change between now and the final games in May.
Battle for the Relegation Play-Off spot
Hearts’ point deduction and inevitable relegation would have doomed the bottom six of the Premiership to be a drab, inconsequential competition in any other season but the introduction of a play-off position which could lead to another Premiership feeling the sinking feeling has created what could be one of the best battles in years.
St. Mirren, Ross County, Partick Thistle, Kilmarnock and even Hibs are all packed within 7 points of each other and know that being the least in-form team over the last stint of the season will mean they have to face-off against one of the Championship’s best teams to preserve their top-tier status.
Hibs are definitely most likely to be safe come May; having a cushion of 4 points above the rest of the pack and a manager in Terry Butcher who has weathered four seasons of bottom six football in the past without being relegated. They should also have the luxury of having three of their final six games at home; including what could be the final Edinburgh derby in the league for at least a year.
Between the other four teams in the quagmire I couldn’t really pick a clear loser. Kilmarnock are in the strongest position points wise, and have a goal scorer in Kris Boyd who can and has won games single-handedly, but are currently without a win since January. St. Mirren are also in a barren run, with only a victory over Killie to their name since beating Hibs in mid-January. These are the two sides that are in the worst form in the league, but also the two teams that have experience of football in the bottom six in recent seasons.
My team, Ross County, are in a precarious position but I hope our form since the transfer window opened can continue and that we’ll manage to beat the drop. Loan signings Filip Kiss, Yann Songo’o, Michael Tidser and purchase Yoann Arquin have been instrumental in turning the tide at Victoria Park and seeing us pick up a few good wins. If we can channel the fighting spirit we’ve shown in our last three games against St Johnstone, Motherwell and Aberdeen then we will hopefully manage to beat other teams in the bottom six and save ourselves from a play-off. However, we do have the second worst record against the bottom six clubs apart from Hearts and will face away games to Partick, St. Mirren and Hearts which could all prove treacherous.
The final contender is Partick Thistle, the team that were promoted last season, who are in poor form like the others but have shown at times this season that they are capable of great performances, like their 3-1 home wins against Aberdeen and Hibs in the last few months. Their inability to kill games off from good positions has seen them rack up a league-high 11 draws this campaign so far and it could be these stalemates, rather than their defeats, that come back to haunt them at the end of the season.
If I had to pick the side that will be involved in a play-off, I’d have to stick with my early season prediction and choose St. Mirren. They’re 11th at the moment and have no real form to speak of this season at all. I saw their defeat to Ross County in February and they lacked any sort of attacking threat against a side that they would hope to be matching if they were to stay in the top division. They will have three home games post-split, but with only 4 wins coming in Paisley (and only 2 against bottom six opposition) it might not be enough to save them.
There are my predictions, then, for the end of this season’s inaugural Premiership. Celtic have already won the league, with Aberdeen to finish 2nd and Motherwell also taking a European spot. St. Mirren will be in a relegation play-off, which could go either way, against Championship opposition with the loser playing alongside Hearts in the second tier next season.