THE battle for European places in the top six of the Scottish Premiership will be fought on an uneven playing field by some of the contenders following the announcement of the post-split fixtures.
Three of the teams in the top half of the table face a third away game of the campaign against one of their opponents as a consequence of the imbalance created by the partition of the division after 33 rounds of fixtures.
The controversial split, introduced in 2001 when the then Scottish Premier League increased in size from 10 to 12 teams, has been regularly criticised in recent years.
Motherwell manager Stuart McCall may now become the latest manager to rail against its inconsistencies after discovering his team will play at Tannadice against Dundee United, one of their rivals in the race for Europa League qualification, for a third time this season.
Inverness Caledonian Thistle, who also harbour European ambitions, have been handed a third visit of the campaign to Celtic Park. St Johnstone, who are currently sixth in the Premiership but not yet out of the Europa League reckoning, must take on Aberdeen at Pittodrie for a third time.
Another flaw of the split in a 38-match league programme is that it is not possible to consistently strike the traditionally desired balance of every team having the same number of home and away fixtures overall.
This season, it is Aberdeen who lose out on that front. The League Cup winners will play 18 home games and 20 away games in the final analysis. The Pittodrie club have previously benefitted from the anomaly, however, enjoying 20 home games against 18 away games three times in recent seasons.
Despite being handed a third trip to Aberdeen, St Johnstone manager Tommy Wright declared himself “happy enough”.
He told the club’s website: “We always thought we would get two home games out of Celtic, Aberdeen and Dundee United so to have the newly crowned champions and another Tayside derby is good.
“It means two lengthy trips for the fans to Aberdeen and Inverness but they have been brilliant throughout the season and I am sure they will back us in those games.”
In the bottom half of the table, where five of the six clubs are battling to avoid finishing in 11th place and going into a relegation play-off tie against a Championship team, the fixture compilers have avoided anyone being landed with a third away trip of the season against the same opponent.
But Hibs, whose recent form has dragged them into the relegation equation, have been handed the notional overall advantage of having 20 home games and 18 away games in the campaign.
The final Edinburgh derby of the season will take place at Easter Road on Sunday 27 April with a 12.45pm kick-off and will be televised live on BT Sport. Partick Thistle’s home game against St Mirren on Friday 25 April will be covered live by BBC Alba. BT Sport will also select one of the final day bottom six fixtures for live screening on Saturday 10 May.
In the top six, Sky Sports have selected three games for live coverage – Celtic’s trip to Motherwell on Saturday 19 April, Dundee United’s home game with Aberdeen on Tuesday 6 May and Celtic’s final home match of the season against United on Sunday 11 May, after which Neil Lennon’s men will be presented with the Premiership trophy.
That final Sunday of the campaign also sees Aberdeen welcome Motherwell to Pittodrie in what could potentially be a decisive 90 minutes in the battle for runners-up spot in the table. That fixture will be televised live by BT Sport.
“We’re delighted to announce today’s fixtures which have a real extra sense of excitement thanks to the Premiership/Championship play-off factor, a new addition starting this season,” said Scottish Professional Football League chief executive Neil Doncaster. “We hope fans of all clubs enjoy some thrilling matches in the final five rounds of fixtures.”