Six burning questions ahead of the return of the Ladbrokes Premiership

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With domestic football returning this weekend after the international break, Craig Fowler looks at the state of play and picks the most burning questions concerning clubs in the top flight.

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James Scott celebrates with his Motherwell team-mates after putting the Fir Park side 1-0 up against St Mirren.

James Scott celebrates with his Motherwell team-mates after putting the Fir Park side 1-0 up against St Mirren.

Are Motherwell the third best team in the country?

This will be investigated further in Friday's episode of A View From The Terrace so this writer won't labour the point too much, but thus far Motherwell have been a ray of sunshine in what has otherwise been a bleak Scottish Premiership top flight so far this season.

All right, all right, it's great to have a proper title race for the first time since the first weeks of 2012, but so many fanbases have been miserable this term. Hearts and Hibs have been rubbish (more on them shortly), Aberdeen have bored their supporters into a rage, Kilmarnock were knocked out of Europe by a team who are officially worse than Partick Thistle, and St Johnstone still haven't won a game. Livingston and Ross County fans are delighted but there's still an air of 'isn't-it-great-to-be-here?' about them. We're going to need a bigger sample size before properly backing them as a top-six prospect.

Motherwell, on the other hand, have been there before. Even before The Rise of the Diddies - the period of time where Scottish football came as close as it possibly could to parity in Rangers' absence from the top flight - Motherwell had managed to hoist themselves into the company of the elite. They were a top-six side in six of the seven seasons stretching from 2007 to 2014, including finishing as "best of the rest" in four of those, most notably the final three.

A frustrated Craig Levein during Hearts' 2-2 draw with Hamilton Accies earlier this season.

A frustrated Craig Levein during Hearts' 2-2 draw with Hamilton Accies earlier this season.

After a five-year hiatus they are poised to make a run at it once again. A win on Saturday over Aberdeen at Fir Park, coupled with results going their way elsewhere, could see them hold as much as a seven-point gap over the other nine teams below them in the race for third place.

How long will Craig Levein survive at Hearts?

Hearts host Rangers this Sunday (defeat) then travel to Livingston (lost 5-0 on last trip; defeat) before going to St Johnstone the week after (never win at McDiarmid; defeat) and finally meeting Rangers again in the Betfred Cup semi-final (once more: defeat).

Facetiousness aside, given Hearts' recent form, it's not beyond the realms of possibility that the next four matches will bring zero points and one cup exit. It'd be beyond stating the obvious to say the Hearts fans would not stand for such a run given the strained relationship they currently have with their team's manager, but owner Ann Budge has already shown herself to be dismissive of supporter pressure, and it's her opinion that really counts.

Hearts currently sit ninth and are only two points from the foot of the table. It's not outwith the realms of possibility they could be bottom once the first round of fixtures are complete. Injuries have obviously played their part, but there's still more than enough talent remaining in the Tynecastle first-team squad that they should not be the worst team in the division come November. Budge's patience will wear thin then - despite her unswerving support, her last public statement did say that results have to improve.

Of course, that's a worst-case scenario. With major players in Steven Naismith, Peter Haring and Jamie Walker set to return, they could give Rangers a bloody nose, win both of those away games and put in another strong showing at Hampden. That would put the manager in a stable position once again.

Can Paul Heckingbottom turn Hibs around?

Despite increasing pressure to depart with their manager in the wake of the Edinburgh derby defeat by Hearts, Hibs' board remained firm in their belief that Heckingbottom was the right man to turn things around and, three games later, there is light at the end of the tunnel. They've drawn those fixtures against tough opponents (eventually beating Kilmarnock on penalties) but, more importantly, performances improved vastly in the latter two.

Now it's time to maintain that level of performance and start racking up some victories. The map is certainly there for Heckingbottom to navigate himself back into the hearts of the Easter Road faithful. In their next eight league fixtures they play Ross County twice, host Livingston, Motherwell and Kilmarnock, while travelling to Hamilton, St Johnstone and St Mirren. Five victories and a couple of draws isn't impossible and it would propel them back in the hunt for a European spot, which is where supporters envisioned them battling this season.

The big decision he's got to make is whether to trust misfiring striker Christian Doidge. The team have certainly looked better with him in the starting XI as opposed to Florian Kamberi, but when a striker is failing to find the back of the net with four one-on-ones (even if two of them were a little unfortunate) it would give any manager cause for thought. A midfield diamond with Scott Allan playing behind Doidge and Kamberi is an option for the Hibs boss, but having just managed to find a degree of balance in his team it's likely he'll back Doidge once again when they travel to Accies this weekend.

Can Jermain Defoe keep up his astounding goals-per-minute ratio?

The Rangers striker is the current leader in the Ladbrokes Premiership with nine goals. His goals-per-game record is impressive enough, having only featured in seven top flight matches so far, but when you break it down to goals-per-minute, it really is quite something. The on loan Bournemouth star has hit the back on the net, on average, every 39 minutes.

We should expect his red-hot streak to cool off a little, especially as six of his nine goals have come in the last three matches, which Rangers have won by a combined score of 14-0. However, don't be too surprised if he keeps his tally well below a goal every 90 minutes for the remainder of the season.

While he'd obviously rather start matches, Defoe is in a great position at Rangers in order to tally up goals. Always an elusive forward, he gets to come on fresh and evade tired defenders who are often exposed by their team pushing men up the park to try and salvage something from the game.

Furthermore, if Celtic striker Odsonne Edouard were to miss any stretch of time through injury, there's a real possibility that Defoe and team-mate Alfredo Morelos will finish first and second in the goalscoring charts - despite them rarely being on the field at the same time.

Can we expect a reaction from Celtic?

Since acting the cold-hearted cartel boss in their ruthless dispatching of rivals Rangers, Neil Lennon's side appear to have become a little complacent on the domestic front. In their following four matches they scored more than one goal only once, fell behind on three occasions and dropped five points. These were masked by excellent displays in Europe as they grabbed a draw in Rennes before putting in the performance of the season with the emphatic 2-0 victory over Cluj, though the Livingston defeat brought their domestic stagnation to the fore.

Now it's time to refocus. By the time Ross County come to town this Saturday, the players will have had 13 days to stew over the defeat in West Lothian. It'll be a reminder to all that, this season, there is no game that can be taken for granted. Lennon will then hammer home that point when they all return to training after the international break, likely to be this Thursday.

This weekend could be bad for County. Celtic haven't dished out a proper beating since sticking five past Motherwell at Fir Park on matchday two. With Rangers taking a six-goal advantage in the goal-difference battle, the reigning champions will be looking to run up the score on somebody. If it's not the Staggies then it'll likely come soon. Five out of their next seven games are at Celtic Park. None of them are against last season's top six.

Will St Mirren score enough goals to keep themselves afloat?

Can you be bottom of the table and still be doing a good job? In Jim Goodwin's case, yes you can. The Paisley outfit are a tough side to beat. They've conceded just eight so far - only Kilmarnock and the Old Firm have conceded fewer - and their recent 2-0 defeat to Motherwell was the first match they've lost by more than a single goal, with Christopher Long's clinching strike coming in the 86th minute.

Goodwin has made them a well-organised, determined and resolute side. The problem is that they have very little attacking talent to speak of at this level. Kyle McAllister and Kyle Magennis are decent enough on the wings, while Danny Mullen is a serviceable No.3 striker for a squad expected to battle relegation. However, the same cast-the-net-wide scouting approach, headed by Gus McPherson and successful in keeping them up last season, does not appear to have worked this time.

Jonathan Obika and Junior Morias have shown nothing other than bulk in attack, Ilkay Durmus consistently threatens to do something but rarely does, while Tony Andreu still looks a shell of the player who impressed so thoroughly for Hamilton five years ago.

St Mirren have netted just three times so far in the league this campaign and, unless of one or two of the above finds some form, it's hard to envisage them improving dramatically on that front. Goodwin can search for the right recipe in the attacking third, but he's hampered by the ingredients he's been given.

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