Alan Pattullo: Looking into the crystal football for 2016

PREDICTING Scotland’s beautiful game is a tricky proposition – and, let’s face it, with Celtic’s still brittle defence, anything is liable to happen – but here goes

Dundee United manager Mixu Paatelainen. Picture: SNS Group

On the first day of 2015, would anyone have ventured to imagine, a year on, that Dundee United would have traded third place in the league for last? Given that this was also the day they hammered local rivals Dundee 6-2, probably not.

But this is where United currently languish. And “traded” is the operative word since many of their woes can be linked to the sale of their three best players to Celtic. But such a remarkable turnaround in fortunes underlines just how tricky a task it is to predict Scottish football’s future. So with that in mind, here we go.

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We will begin with some wishful thinking: 11 November 2016. We have just over 11 months to prepare for this, so let’s not muck it up, eh lads? England v Scotland. Scotland’s fourth game in a World Cup qualifying campaign that will have already been ignited by wins over Malta, Lithuania and Slovakia. Or at least that’s the hopelessly optimistic plan.

A trip to Wembley on Armistice Day is an appetising prospect. However, there is some trepidation involved too. England were well in control the last time the sides met, at Parkhead in November 2014.

At the heart of their 3-1 win was Wayne Rooney. But Rooney is faltering again and manager Roy Hodgson may well already have been ousted after a poor Euro 2016 campaign, from which England were knocked out at the group stage again after losing to Russia and Wales. You read it here first. With any luck, Gordon Strachan can build on the good vibes that spilled forth from the stand in Gibraltar after the doomed last campaign. Scotland’s chances could hinge on whether he can unearth some new talents, with hardly inspiring reports indicating he has been scouring the books at Leeds United.

In all likelihood, the team will look pretty familiar, although Darren Fletcher’s return to form and fitness at West Bromwich Albion means he could well play a significant part in one last campaign.

Make no mistake, even now, at age 31 (he turns 32 in February) he is needed. His reward for having to patiently wait his chance to become a Scotland regular again will be becoming the first man since Colin Hendry in 1999 to captain a Scottish side to victory at Wembley.

In the domestic arena, can Ronny Deila realistically expect to survive for another 12 months? Just last week some were wondering whether he would last long enough to see in 2016 as Celtic manager. He is perpetually operating on the brink but seems to be able to ward off crises with timely results. He will, of course, need to win the league at the very least if he wishes to prolong his stay in Scotland. Whether he does or not is linked to whether Aberdeen can drum up another head of steam as they seek to dislodge their rivals from the top. Many feel they should have done so already.

But two home draws in succession while Celtic have themselves dropped five points out of six does not suggest Derek McInnes’s side are ruthless enough to become the first non-Old Firm team to win the title since they last finished top, back in 1985. But with Celtic’s still brittle back line, anything is liable to happen. Aberdeen should know they might never get a better chance of lifting the title.

In a division further down, it is likely to go the wire. Rangers and Hibs have been joined by a third rival in Falkirk in recent days, with Peter Houston’s side having made stealth-like progress to finish 2015 as the second-placed team in the division. It is strange because Hibs have earned deserved applause in recent weeks for the way they have cut Rangers’ lead at the top. Alan Stubbs’ side failed in their bid to overhaul Rangers earlier this week but their manager labelled this attempt as a “free hit”. They still have to play the Ibrox side once more, at home. Expect them to win this one. Expect them also to finish first, with Rangers condemned to another challenging play-off experience.

As for the team falling into the Championship from the Premiership, can Dundee United and Mixu Paatelainen turn things around enough to maintain their top-flight status? Ten points adrift of 11th place at Hogmanay is a lonely place to be, but they do have a Dundee derby, and its motivating properties, to look forward to tomorrow. It is being played at Dens, one of their favourite 
venues, too.

A win there, and who knows? They might not survive but expect them to have significantly cut the gap at the bottom come May. Still, it does seem almost certain that the Tannadice club will be the ones propping up the Premiership when the season ends while Rangers may well miss out on promotion back to the top flight yet again.

Which means we can look forward to something else that is almost guaranteed in 2016 – more bleeding talk of league reconstruction.