With the first round of fixtures done and dusted for just about every team, Craig Fowler gives five predictions for the remainder of the Scottish Premiership season.
Celtic will win the treble
The best superhero movies have a main character who is fundamentally flawed in one way or another. It’s why Superman flicks have died a death in the age of the anti-hero. “Oh great,” you sit there thinking, “another fight scene, I wonder if he wins” before the outside-pants wearing, generic-looking immortal saves the day again.
That’s Celtic this season for us neutrals. It’s not a case of if they will win, but how they will win. They’re so clearly the best team that it would take a unforeseen collapse for them not to pick up the title. And they’ve been so comfortably better in both games against Rangers to this point, that it’s hard to imagine anyone stopping them in the cups. Aberdeen and Hearts away are their two toughest fixtures outside Old Firm games, and they’ve won them both too.
Of course for Celtic fans, the season 2016/17 is anything but routine or boring. The competition may not be particularly stellar, but they play attractive, attacking football, and after the various disappointments of the Deila era, they’ll take domination any way it comes.
This season is quite reminiscent of Martin O’Neill’s first campaign. Following two years of malaise, they bring in a highly thought of manager from England and the team improves exponentially. That season they won the treble, the last time they’ve managed to do so. You wouldn’t bet against them repeating the feat.
Rangers will finish second
This past weekend’s win over Kilmarnock was, arguably, the only time Rangers have played well for a full 90 minutes.
There have been a couple of false dawns before in terms of results picking up, like when they rebounded from the opening day draw with Hamilton to defeat Dundee and Motherwell, and the build-up to the Betfred Cup semi-final where they bettered the Thistle clubs, Partick and Inverness Caledonian. On each of those occasions they soon ran into Celtic, which, if didn’t throw them off-stride, certainly didn’t help the team’s confidence. Now’s the perfect time for them to get into a rhythm. They play three clubs in the bottom six over the next three games before they face the next big test, Hearts at Tynecastle. It’s time to build some momentum.
Negativity in football is based on relativity, which is what Rangers fans (or any fans) sometimes fail to understand when the team is criticised. Yes, Rangers are second, but that’s where they should be, and the fact they’ve struggled to get to this point deserves its fair share of negativity. However, you also can’t let it cloud your judgment. Without thinking it through, it’s easy for opposing fans to naturally react: Aberdeen (good), Rangers (bad). Even if this is a poor Rangers team, in a Scottish football vacuum, it’s still likely to be the second best side in the country. They’ve not played well so far and yet they’re already in the runners-up spot. If they can raise their game further, even a little bit, it’s where they’ll definitely finish come the end of the campaign.
Neilson will never have 100 per cent backing of the Hearts crowd
Speaking of expectations, the section of the Hearts support who want Robbie Neilson sacked as the club’s manager has not receded, despite the club currently sitting third. For the reasons explained above, that’s probably their ceiling for the current campaign. So if it’s not good enough now, why would it be any different in May?
Funnily enough, Neilson could do with having Hibs back in the league. While the disconnect goes beyond his failures in Edinburgh derbies (one win in six), it’s exactly the type of matches that, if you win them, you can get disgruntled supporters back onside. On the flip side, one more defeat to the team from Leith could be his death knell. It’s not yet at the stage where he would require such a do-or-die attempt at earning a reprieve, but if Hearts don’t make any serious in-roads on the Scottish Cup this term, that’s exactly where the situation will be come next season.
Dundee to finish league’s lowest scorers
They’re currently second lowest scorers - Ross County are the only side below them - but it’s likely to change. Liam Boyce is back for County and with Chris Burke, Michael Gardyne, Boyce, Alex Schalk and Craig Curran as the options in attack, you have to believe they’ll figure out a way to score consistently soon enough.
The same can’t really be said for the City of Discovery’s only top flight club. There’s a lack of width. Danny Williams has not been as penetrative as he was at Inverness, while the loan of Celtic youngster Michael Duffy hasn’t worked out. There’s a dearth of creative midfielders in the side, as the likes of Mark O’Hara, Paul McGowan and James Vincent, while undoubted hard workers, lack subtly in the centre. And there’s a five-strong striking corps, none of whom are reliable goalscorers in the top flight.
This doesn’t necessarily mean the end for Dundee. If they can sort out the back-line, stop leaking goals and consistently pick up clean sheets, as they did at Hamilton last week, then they can s***house their way to survival.
Ross County to concede most goals in the division
Sorting out a defence is easier said than done, especially when you’re halfway between transfer windows and can do little to address the problem. The worrisome issue regarding Ross County is that the club may resist making such moves in January even if the defence continues to concede with alarming ease. That’s because Andrew Davies, Paul Quinn and Jay McEveley are supposedly three of the highest earners at the club. It’s difficult to justify extra expense to reinforce an area of the team where a healthy portion of the funds are already allocated. Besides, on paper, that’s a solid group of defenders.
Unfortunately, between the three of them, there doesn’t exist a cohesive partnership. They’re all too similar. None of them have much pace, exposing County to balls in behind, while positioning in the open field is perennial problem. They’re all dominant when crosses are slung into the penalty area, like when opponents place them under relentless pressure late in games, but with the aforementioned abundance of attacking arsenal, that’s not how County are set up to play.
The good news is that the defence shipped goals last season, too, and yet County finished in the top half. If they can solve their issues in attack then they can feel confident about survival, regardless of how things change, or don’t change, at the back.