Five things we learned from the Betfred Cup group stages

Lawrence Shankland celebrates after scoring again for Ayr. Pic: SNS/Bill Murray
Lawrence Shankland celebrates after scoring again for Ayr. Pic: SNS/Bill Murray
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With the first round of the Betfred Cup almost complete, Andy Harrow looks back over the competition so far

Championship marksmen are already hitting their straps

If there’s one league where being a defender is likely to be a soul-sapping slog this season, it’s the Championship. The division’s top strikers have started the 2018/19 campaign in ominous form and there’s no reason to suggest they won’t carry it into league business.

Stephen Dobbie scored 18 league goals last season and his remarkable Indian summer looks set to continue after bagging seven in three Betfred Cup games, while Lawrence Shankland carved up League One last season and has two hat-tricks to his name already. The Ayr striker was unimpressive in his last Championship stint, but he returns as a leaner, better, centre forward.

Dunfermline, meanwhile, hit seven against Brechin City midweek with Andy Ryan, Myles Hippolyte and returning Faissal El-Bakhtaoui already on target. Nathan Austin bagged three in three for Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Nicky Clark’s opened his account for an otherwise misfiring Dundee United.

Goals at this stage of the season don’t guarantee a prolific season, but there’s ample evidence for why Championship defences might worry.

Premiership teams are lacking fluency

If there’s a time to catch a Premiership side cold, it’s in the group stages of the Betfred Cup. The July start means the top tier sides are still in the midst of pre-season, with squads yet to be fully filled and most casting a wary eye on the resumption of league duties.

From Hearts’ flat draw with Raith Rovers, to Stranraer’s penalty win over Motherwell, to Spartans and Queen’s Park’s draws with St. Mirren, there have been no shortage of unexpected results.

In each case the Premiership side has struggled for fluency and found it difficult to break down resolute defences. Of course, at this stage of the season fans shouldn’t be too concerned - and the format of the competition has allowed most teams to recover - but alarm bells might be ringing for one of two of the big names.

St Mirren really need to sign a striker

Leave to one side, for a moment, that St Mirren scored six in their final group game against Dumbarton because the Paisley club are badly in need of better options up front.

An encouraging draw against Kilmarnock on the opening evening of the Betfred Cup was dampened by St Mirren’s inability to finish their chances. That they would only score one goal from open play in 270 minutes of competitive action - and with the other two games against Queen’s Park and non-league Spartans - is a better indicator of the Premiership side’s needs than a final day shellacking of the Sons.

Alan Stubbs has talked about signing a ‘marquee’ striker and someone with both Premiership experience and a knack for scoring would prove hugely beneficial, but the Buddies also needs greater depth in that position. Stubbs has so far relied on Cammy Smith - who proved a success last season but is untried as a Premiership regular - and players whose last spells were at Alloa Athletic and Truro City. If St Mirren don’t land a striker, it could yet be a long season.

Falkirk, Dundee United and Raith Rovers could struggle again

Falkirk, Dundee United and Raith Rovers have provided a handy guide in how to puncture supporters’ early season optimism.

All three had campaigns they’d rather forget in 2017/18 and, based on the Betfred Cup results, 2018/19 might not be much better.

For Falkirk, the ultimate disaster of relegation to League One was avoided last term, but they hung close to the drop zone for an uncomfortably long time. While results improved at the tail end of a miserable season, they’ve lost two of their better performers in Louis Longridge and Craig Sibbald and started this campaign by losing 1-0 at home to Montrose. Although they would avoid a similar embarrassment against Forfar, a defeat to St Johnstone without scoring saw them exit the competition.

At Tannadice, murmurs of discontent with manager Csaba Laszlo have grown increasingly loud as Dundee United have staggered from disaster to calamity in the cup. A draw with Arbroath on penalties at home was followed by a narrow defeat to Ross County and another home draw against lower league opponents, Alloa. A win against Elgin in the final round will have done little to quell the noise.

Raith Rovers, meanwhile, expected to achieve promotion from League One last term but ultimately collapsed in the play-offs. They’ve returned under Barry Smith with a smaller squad and, despite a heartening draw with Hearts, have been brought low by damaging defeats to Cowdenbeath and Cove Rangers.

Another season of disappointment might await all three.

The revised format continues to be a success

The SPFL comes in for criticism so regularly that the organisation’s employees must have skins thicker than your average African rhinoceros.

In the case of the Betfred Cup though, the usual complaints have been relatively muted. The competition changed its first round from knock-out to a group stage in 2016 and it’s proven to be a rare success.

For the smaller sides it guarantees a fixture against one of the country’s best teams as well as additional home games - and gate receipts - they perhaps wouldn’t have garnered in knock-out football.

The Premiership sides, meanwhile, might occasionally find themselves caught out by the early start to their season but the nature of the group stages means they have multiple opportunities to undo any damage caused. It also provides their players the opportunity to prepare for the league season in competitive fixtures, rather than in the pallid environs of the pre-season friendly.

What’s more, through their agreement with BT Sport, Scottish football is being broadcast live to a UK audience otherwise starved of football. In the weeks before the English Premier League hype machine cranks into gear, it means the Scottish game can flourish and show what it has to offer.