10 pressing questions ahead of the Scottish Premiership restart

Aberdeen and Rangers will likely battle it out for second place. Picture: SNS
Aberdeen and Rangers will likely battle it out for second place. Picture: SNS
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This weekend will see the first full round of Scottish Premiership in 2017 as the clubs get back to league action following the winter break. In honour of the return, Joel Sked has looked at the ten most interesting questions concerning the remainder of the campaign.

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Can Celtic become invincibles . . . and win the treble?

Champions League qualification? Check. Betfred League Cup? Check. League title? 22 point lead, zero defeats, plus 41 goal difference . . . Check! There’s only two targets remaining: the Scottish Cup and an unbeaten domestic season.

Attain the latter and the former will be achieved - the club’s first treble since 2001. Brendan Rodgers would follow in the footsteps of Martin O’Neill, winning the trio of trophies in his debut season. However, the more significant achievement would be the unbeaten domestic record.

The last team to go through a league campaign undefeated in the top flight was Rangers in 1898-1899 when they won all 18 league games. Celtic did similar the previous season with 15 wins and three draws.

But to do so over a 38-game season PLUS both domestic trophies would be an incredible feat, even if Celtic have a substantial advantage with their budget.

The team took their first steps towards the treble by defeating Albion Rovers on Sunday. And it was Rodgers’ team selection which suggests there will be no let-up between now and May’s denouement.

Brendan Rodgers will be making sure that neither quality or intensity are dropped. Apart from winning, the Northern Irishman will be keen for his ethos to crystallise among his players, as individuals and as a team. That way they are ready for the challenge of Champions League qualification a matter of weeks after the season’s end.

The ambition of finishing unbeaten domestically and winning the treble will help inspire the players, keep fans engaged, ensure competitiveness in the squad and keep standards high.

Who wins the fight for second?

Rangers currently hold a slight advantage. They lead Aberdeen by two points but have a significantly inferior goal difference, while the Dons have a game in hand. Analysing the two squads and stats available it is the team currently sitting third who are perhaps favourites to finish best of the rest.

Aberdeen have outscored Rangers by seven goals despite taking significantly less shots, while they have conceded two fewer, giving up 8.90 shots per game compared to Rangers’ 9.67. The Dandies also outperform Rangers on hitting the target more often and preventing opposition from getting shots on target.

All in all Aberdeen are more efficient. They have a natural goal scorer in Adam Rooney, the best player outside of Celtic in Jonny Hayes, and now Niall McGinn seems to be finding his form again, contributing both goals and assists regularly.

Their downfall when challenging for the title last season was a lack of assuredness between the sticks in the second half of the season and not adding wisely in the January transfer window. They have few such worries with the excellent Joe Lewis as number one and Ryan Christie now on board.

Rangers have added two central midfielders but issues still exist throughout the team. There is no reliable partner for Clint Hill, no quick and direct midfielder and a tendency to have all forwards maraud. However, they still have the Ibrox factor. Teams have a habit of freezing in Govan and forgetting about Rangers’ vulnerabilities.

The race for second, you suspect, will go right to the end.

What’s the aim at Tynecastle?

Heart of Midlothian scraped past Raith Rovers in the Scottish Cup to set up a thigh-rubber of a fifth-round derby clash with Hibernian - the second year running the teams will meet in the cup. And we all know how the ramifications for both sides after the men from Easter Road deservedly won through following a replay.

It has been a vexing season in Gorgie. Humiliation in the Europa League, slapstick recruitment, erratic league results, plus a continued malaise every time the team leave EH11. Then there is that strip.

Robbie Neilson left Hearts in second-place, albeit a somewhat false position. Ian Cathro has came in and struggled, and there are few fans of a maroon persuasion who could argue, coherently, that the team have it in them to finish second. This means one thing: BEAT HIBS.

Hearts fans are crying out for a run in the Scottish Cup. They witnessed their rivals break their curse last season, having been on the cusp of putting them out before Hibs got near Hampden. Retribution is on the mind of every Hearts fan. Forget the three games between now and the cup tie, they act as mere preparation.

It may be a parochial mindset but beating Hibs is of grave importance to the Hearts support - it could be argued too much weight is given to results against Hibs. Fail to do so and resentment, disgruntlement and anger will grow. Fans will find other things to do with their Saturdays with little else to play for.

Beat Hibs and Cathro gives himself, and those above him, acres of breathing space as well as a platform to build.

Will this be Tommy Wright’s farewell season?

Scanning the list of players out of contract at the end of the season it is St Johnstone who are most affected. Ten first-team players see their contracts expire this summer. Some are more important than others but the potential of losing and trying to replace Brian Easton, Richard Foster, Joe Shaugnessy, Steven MacLean, Danny Swanson and David Wotherspoon must concern Tommy Wright.

The Saints are the definition of prudent, but more than that they are canny and astute. They budget for a low finish and constantly outperform such expectations. Wright has signed players who have been much-maligned elsewhere, giving them a structure in which to express their qualities.

However, such success brings about admirers and vultures. Eventually. Out of contract players may see this summer as the time to reward themselves with a better contract elsewhere or, for some, namely Swanson and Easton, another shot down south.

Wright MUST have interest this summer. Teams would be foolish not to. If he sees some of his players decide their future is away from McDiarmid Park he is unlikely to stick around knowing how difficult a rebuilding job would be required.

With the team well-placed, a top-four finish would be a fine way to end what has been an incredibly productive four seasons in charge.

Who finishes sixth?

The top five positions are all but wrapped up. St Johnstone may only enjoy a five-point lead over sixth place but such is the turbulent nature of the bottom seven it is hard to see the Saints not extending that lead.

Seven points is the difference between sixth and 12th. At the beginning of December it was two points. There is a schism developing. It would be somewhat surprising if the current bottom three - Kilmarnock, Hamilton Academical and Inverness Caledonian Thistle - weren’t the bottom three come the end of the season. Of the other teams Dundee must be most concerned with getting dragged into that particular undesirable fight.

It will be interesting to see how Motherwell react to their soul-destroying defeat in the Scottish Cup to Rangers. If Mark McGhee has all players available to him they have one of the better teams in the bottom half. Yet, the two frontrunners are Partick Thistle and Ross County.

Alan Archibald has the best squad since taking over from Jackie McNamara at his disposal. Their fans have much to look forward to in the second half of the season. They shouldn’t be making concerned glances in the rearview mirror, they are better than that. The Jags possess an abundance of creativity, if only they can get Ade Azeez to follow Kris Doolan in finding the back of the net. Mustapha Dumbuya coming back is a massive boost also.

Ross County, however, are the team to beat. They have been particularly frustrating this season. The Staggies have real quality but it has taken Jim McIntyre a lot of chopping and changing, both personnel and system, for the best of County to emerge.

He has added further depth in wide areas and defence, while Christopher Routis and Tim Chow are dependable on the ball, energetic and compliment each other, whether in a midfield two or three. And then there is Liam Boyce. Goals.

Will the relegation battle go down to the wire?

It would be incredibly disappointing if it didn’t. For one team to get cut adrift in the next few weeks would see the split become incredibly anti-climatic.

Thankfully, such is the ineptitude displayed by the bottom three teams on a consistent basis, and then displays of competency on a less frequent basis, there will be plenty of twists and turns to keep our attention fixed on the race to finish 10th.

Lee Clark has lost the player who has scored 50 per cent of his team’s goals. Souleymane Coulibaly’s eight league strikes have garnered Kilmarnock six points, all won against bottom six rivals. The money was too good to turn down for all parties but with few others showing signs of scoring or creating, how costly the sale will be will become clearer in the next few months, but they do have a cushion of a four-point lead over bottom side ICT.

ICT have big players and big personalities who, on paper, shouldn’t be in a relegation scrap. But the team lacks pace and a defensive solidity which has proved a hallmark of their recent seasons in the league. They’ve been too open when possession has been lost, resulting in them conceding just under two goals a game.

Hamilton have lost 24 points from winning positions, they don’t have a reliable goal scorer and their support is fed-up with manager Martin Canning, who has won 17 of 77 leagues game. It is hard to accentuate positives from such a feeble record.

Don’t worry, folks. We’ll have a relegation showdown.

Can Liam Boyce hold off Celtic to finish top goalscorer?

The Northern Irishman leads the way at the top of the charts by two goals with 13. Hot on his heels are Scott Sinclair and Moussa Dembele, with a further two Celtic players in the top eight league goalscorers. He has severe competition but shows few signs of slowing.

The 25-year-old’s haul has included only one penalty, he converts more than 30 per cent of his chances, and he is scoring at a rate of more than one goal every other game (0.65 goals per game). He is proving highly efficient at finding the back of the net because he finds the target with just over 60 per cent of his shots. His goal scoring is even more impressive when you consider that he has taken the least amount of shots compared to other forwards.

This could be seen as a hot streak but over a long period of time he has proven himself as a prolific marksman in the Premiership. He constantly gets himself into good positions, especially when crosses come from wide, finding space between centre-back and full-back.

Boyce will be helped by Celtic’s array of attackers sharing the goal load, whereas he is relied on by the Staggies.

Which manager is next to leave?

It is unfathomable that the likes of Rodgers and Wright will walk (or be sacked) before the season end. McInnes and Warburton have had their critics but despite the outside noise are safe in their positions. It would take a pretty disastrous set of results for Cathro, Archibald and/or McIntyre to be shown the door. All the names mentioned would be unlikely to move to another job before the season has been completed,

That leaves the bottom five. Richie Foran was inexplicably given a four-year-deal, Canning appears to enjoy very strong support at Hamilton, much to the dismay of Accies fans, and Lee Clark has been afforded plenty of licence to operate in the transfer window, if not with funds then certainly numbers, and he kept them in the Premiership last season.

That leaves Paul Hartley and Mark McGhee. McGhee has had his budget slashed and Motherwell are going through a process of trying to build on their 2016 Youth Cup success. Hartley is another who has suffered criticism this season but there has been little suggestion from the inside that he’s ever been under pressure.

As opposed to down south, Premiership managers are afforded a good dollop of trust. Largely that is down to finance. Chopping and changing isn’t judicious in a business sense. However, what should be said is come the summer this writer believes there is going to be a fair amount of change in the Premiership as two or three managers make the move down south while others will have overstayed their welcome.

How many teams will come up from the Championship?

Since the introduction of the relegation play-offs, the Premiership lead 2-1. Hamilton won promotion against all likelihood in the inaugural season. Since then Motherwell and Kilmarnock have prolonged their stay in the top-flight.

Hibs are in the driving seat and it would be some severe ‘Hibsing’ if they were not to win the Championship. They have a Premiership squad and a buoyancy around the club which has reflected in large crowds. This is a club with a feel good factor ready to make the final step in ridding most of their ills following relegation.

A few weeks ago this question would have been a straightforward YES. But since then Dundee United have looked like a club still deep in their transformation from the shambles which finished rock bottom last season. A 6-2 defeat at Ross County in the Scottish Cup wasn’t a good sign for the club if they were to enter the play-offs.

However, their defence has improved, Willo Flood and Stewart Murdoch have added top-flight experience and a no-nonsense attitude to the middle of midfield. Plus, Tony Andreu is the epitome of a match-winner.

We shouldn’t discount Greenock Morton ,who have improved step by step under Jim Duffy. This is an old-fashioned club without any sports science or other such facets which are conventional at most full-time clubs. But a team spirit and good feeling has been fostered and these intangibles can take teams far and make them play greater than the sum of their parts. At the end of the regular season opinions can be swayed. After all the team who finishes 11th have been poor all season, while the Championship side have came through at least one two-legged fixture and finished high in the league.

Will it be 3-1 or 2-2?

How many people will Chris Sutton aggravate?

*Thinking aloud* 12 times four, square that, subtract the four, I mean times it by four. Erm, a lot! And I, for one, can’t wait. The ex-Celtic striker is not everyone’s cup of tea but he is box office. You want to tune in and watch Stephen Craigan self-combust in front of your very eyes. It is always a good way to warm yourself up for BT’s Friday night football which is back this evening.

We, and I very much include myself in this, can be quick to judge pundits, commentators, journalists. But through the BBC, BT Sport, especially, and even Sky there is a lot of people passionate about Scottish football, and there is a lot of content out there, podcasts, television, newspapers, online and Twitter.

It is an enthusiastic community, if that is the right word, and I am sure that the next few months will provide us all with much to talk about, get excited about and more than anything have a right good moan about.

Let the Premiership recommence.

Statistics taken from @TheBackPassRule and @TheSPFLRadar

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