Saturday, 8 October 2011

The Scottish Premier League - The Season So Far (Guest Post From Andrew Neill)

By Andrew Neill

So far, all of the teams in the Scottish Premier League have now played 10 matches (with the exception of Celtic and Dunfermline). Also, with the first stages of European football completed and the League Cup at the quarter-final stage, it is a good time to see if teams are matching their pre-season expectations:


With Ally McCoist in his first managerial post, this was always going to be an interesting season for Rangers. After falling at the first hurdle in both European competitions there were early calls for the manager's head after a shock defeat in the last minute to lowly Falkirk in the League Cup. Without their SPL form, McCoist could have enjoyed a very short tenure as Rangers manager, but after drawing their opening game of the season, Rangers have won 9 straight matches - keeping 8 clean sheets (and winning the first Auld Firm game of the campaign hasn't done him much harm). McCoist is enjoying the best league start of any new manager since 1920, when Bill Struth started his reign by going undefeated in his first 23 league games in charge. And despite some worrying off-field issues with the Inland Revenue, the Gers remain favourites to win their 4th title in a row.


The surprise package of the year thus far. They got off to an impressive start, winning three of their first four games and they have only lost 3 games in the league Celtic, Rangers and St Johnstone. They did go out of the League Cup on a penalty shoot-out to Hibernian, but if they can maintain the results then they will be in the challenge for the unofficial title of best team outside of the Auld Firm. They will have to maintain their consistency as their defeats this season have been few, but heavy; 3-0 to Rangers, 4-0 to Celtic and 3-0 St Johnstone. But with six wins they are showing the rest of the teams that they are there to compete.


With three losses already in the league this year already, they are currently sitting 10 points off of top spot - albeit with a game in hand. But it's a worrying statistic, given that they only lost 4 games for the whole of the 2010/11 season. They remain the last Scottish team in Europe, and are in the quarter-finals of the League Cup, but face a tricky away tie to an improving Hibs team. While there has been little talk of manager Neil Lennon's job being under threat, unless he can start to extract some better finishing from his team, he could become increasingly vulnerable at Parkhead.


The enigma that is Hearts; After losing their first home game of the season to Dundee United, they have won the last 4 home games in a row, and yet away from home they have not won since February. Continuing the theme of inconsistency, they lost to lower league Ayr United on penalties in the League Cup, and were demolished by Tottenham in the preliminary round of the Europa League. If they can continue the home form and figure out how to remain effective when the home support is not there to cheer them on, they will be challenging for the Europa League spot again. This will be a good achievement for manager Paulo Sergio, who was brought in after Jim Jeffries and Billy Brown were surprising sacked after only 2 games of the league season.  There's still a long way to go for Hearts, whose owner believes they should be challenging for the title and European glory, rather than scrapping around in mid-table.


The Perth based team are currently the antithesis of Hearts, struggling to find consistent form at home, while performing impressively on the road, including surprise wins over Celtic at Parkhead and Motherwell at Fir Park. Consistency has been an issue, but if they can maintain their impressive away form they will surely make the top six and will be in a position to challenge for 3rd place. There could be a silver lining to their elimination from the League Cup, as it affords them more time to concentrate on the league.


Sitting in the 6th spot that will see them in the top half of the table when the mid-season split happens would please all associated with the Paisley club. They have a good record against their main rivals for this position, beating against Hibs, Aberdeen and Kilmarnock. However, they lost to bottom side Inverness last Saturday, missing a great opportunity to create a gap between the top and bottom halves of the table. Their defeat to Caley-Thistle keeps things real tight across the bottom of the league, with there only being four points between 6th and 12th. They remain in the League Cup so there is still some chance of glory for them as they have a home tie against Ayr.


Kilmarnock started the season quite strongly. But while they were unbeaten in their first 4 games, they contained only one win. And now Killie' have lost three from their last four. They are still in the cup and will at least be expected to make it to the semi-final, if not the final. They must stop the rot at Rugby Park, as a couple of wins could propel them up the table and put them in the hunt for the top six, but they will need to find the consistency that all of the clubs in Scotland seem to lack at present.


As beaten finalists in the Scottish Cup last year, they were granted entry to the Europa League at the earliest qualifying round, While they failed to make it past the first stage, they were unlucky to lose on away goals. They've made the quarter-finals of the League Cup, but their league form is poor. It currently comes down to the fact that they concede too many goals, already shipping 19. They have always had the ability to score goals and if they can stop conceding at such an alarming rate,  they remain close enough to the top-half that a few results like at the end of last season will see them move swiftly up the table.


Things are dire for this once great club. They sit in 9th place, are only one point off last place, and are yet to record an away win. After losing to first division East Fife in the League Cup, it looks like it is going to be another long season for Aberdeen who have struggled in recent years to achieve the expectations of fans who saw their club climb the heights of Europe in the 1980's. There is hope as they are only three points behind 6th place, so like most of the SPL clubs, they know a couple of good results will put them back in the hunt for a coveted top six place, so a challenge for European qualification is not out of the question.


Another team on the rise after a poor start to the season that saw them bottom a couple of weeks ago - losing to Hearts in a lacklustre game. The troubled Gary O'Connor getting back in the goals is their main crumb of comfort. They could have pulled off a shock result against Rangers last weekend, and were unlucky to lose 1-0. So, if the performances continue under Colin Calderwood and some more players can start to find the back of the net Hibs could yet still make top six.


This season's newcomers to the SPL, Dunfermline are having some difficulties adapting to the top flight. There was a confident start to the campaign when they started with two draws and two wins. But they are yet to get a home win and have conceded 20 goals in only 9 matches, with a daunting trip to Parkhead awaiting them next week. Their elimination from the League Cup is an annoyance, but could also be a convenience, as with all newly promoted clubs their main aim this year is simply to stay in the division.


Stuck in last place bottom of the table, Caley's main problem has been the closing stages of games, losing in the 92nd minute to Hibs and conceding a 90th minute equaliser to Dundee United. Had these results gone the way of the Fife side, they would currently be 7th in the league.

Overall while Rangers have a comfortable points cushion at the top, the bottom nine clubs are only separated by 7 points, which means with 28 matches of the season to go, there is still plenty to play for.

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