Craig Fowler looks back at a busy couple of days in the top two divisions.
Nobody wants to win this title
There have been approximately 573 occasions this season when we’ve looked at Aberdeen’s hopes of winning the league and denounced them dead. However, like some bumbling protagonist at the beginning of a generic horror flick, Celtic keep finding ways of inadvertently bringing them back to life.
The gap currently sits at four points. Aberdeen are still to play Celtic this season, so you have to assume the race is still very much on. Sure, the game is at Parkhead, but with the way Ronny Deila’s side are playing at the moment it’s far from a certainty that Celtic will have much of a psychological advantage going into that game.
Celtic are seemingly incapable of raising their game
It’s been a pretty poor eight-game stretch for the champions. After scoring 12 goals in two matches against Hamilton and Dundee United, they’ve since won four from eight and haven’t looked particularly convincing in any of those.
Last night was the team’s nadir in the league this season. With an eye on their meeting with Rangers this Saturday, Dundee withheld Gary Harkins, Greg Stewart and Kane Hemmings from the starting XI, while both starting centre backs were missing. They were all but handing the game to Celtic. An easier three points there shouldn’t have been. Instead, the hosts were flat, uninspired and deserved the chorus of boos they got a full-time.
Deila’s most trusted lieutenants are teenagers (and Leigh Griffiths)
Against Dundee, Patrick Roberts and Kieran Tierney deserved pass marks, and that was about it. The rest of the side just drifted through the game and none of them would have been entitled to complain had the visitors nicked it at the end. Perhaps this tells us a lot about the current squad’s relationship with Ronny Deila. The senior players are woefully out of form, while the young and impressionistic are busting a gut at playing to their best each and every match, as youngsters tend to do regardless of environment. You could extend this theory to Tom Rogic who, while not playing well last night, has outperformed both Kris Commons and Stefan Johansen this campaign.
The outlier is Leigh Griffiths, but then the striker owes his rapid career ascension to the current Celtic manager, and therefore may be more willing to fight to save his job. This is pure speculation, but certainly something worth considering.
Sunday will have a huge bearing on Hibs’ season
It’s possible that Hibs have been both the beneficiary and the victims of statistical anomalies. We always try to attach meaning to everything in football, but sometimes it’s just by random chance that a teams wins five-in-a-row or loses that many games consecutively. It’s probable that Alan Stubbs’ side were not as good as their 17 match unbeaten run suggested, nor are they as bad as this current three-game skid would indicate.
Unfortunately, all of that may not matter because the loss to Queen of the South, coupled with the previous two defeats to Dumbarton and Morton, is feeding a narrative that the club thought they had rid themselves of, but one which others insist is an ingrained part of Easter Road culture. That is, when it comes to the crunch, they are going to “Hibs it” once more.
Sunday’s game takes on massive significance. Should they lose to Inverness, it’s easy to see the entire season crumbling around them. Suddenly they go into the League Cup final with rock-bottom confidence, and if they would lose that it’s difficult to imagine them rebuilding the type of self-belief required to navigate through two (potentially three) rounds of the play-offs without becoming the victims of some misfortune.
However, if they can raise their game and defeat Inverness, who were dreadful on their visit to Edinburgh on Tuesday, then suddenly everything changes. It reinforces the belief in the players that they are a second tier side in name only, giving them a huge boost ahead of the League Cup final where they continue their unbeaten run against top flight sides this season and lift the trophy. From there, even if they don’t win the Scottish Cup or even make it to the final, as long as it’s Rangers or Celtic doing the eliminating it won’t dent their confidence all that much and they’ll successfully win back promotion via the play-offs.
No pressure then, lads.
We’ve gone from one problem to another at Rugby Park
The Ayrshire club have undoubtedly become a more organised unit since Gary Locke left, but all managers have their strengths and weaknesses. Killie got a bounce when Locke took charge from Allan Johnston because he let the team play with more freedom and preferred an attacking approach to the game, as the team felt too constricted under Johnston. Similarly, there needed to be greater structure and organisation in their play under Locke, and another bounce duly arrived when he was replaced by first Lee McCulloch, on an interim basis, and then Lee Clark, two managers capable of providing such qualities. However, Killie’s longest stretch of games without scoring was two, which occurred at the start of the season. Now they’ve gone three matches without netting.
Of course, it’s far too early to make any sort of judgement on Lee Clark and he is hamstrung by inheriting a team full of players signed by his predecessor. However, he’ll need to quickly find a balance between continuing some of the attacking vigour Kilmarnock possessed under Locke while also making them a disciplined, hard to bear unit. They sit in the relegation play-off spot, two points behind Hamilton and having played a game more. Time is of the essence.
Rangers fans love Billy King
Following his January loan from Hearts, Rangers fans desperately want their club to keep Billy King for good. The midfielder has made a terrific start to life at Ibrox after and excelled in their 2-0 win over Raith Rovers in midweek. Similar to his predecessor on the wing, Nathan Oduwa, King has wowed the fans with his close control and trickery on the ball. Unlike his fellow loanee, who’s since returned to Spurs, King actually has a consistent final ball.
Hearts fans were never happy about one of their favourites being sent on loan. In fairness, it made more sense at the time. After Osman Sow was sold and the squad suffered a brief dip in form there were a few envious glances towards the west from those wishing the club could bring King home. Instead, they’ll have to wait until the summer, after he wins his second Ladbrokes Championship title in successive years.
Formations don’t equate attacking or defensive play
For the past two games, Hearts have lined up in an old fashioned 4-4-2 with two wingers and two strikers, and yet they’ve been completely suffocating defensively. Kilmarnock created only two decent chances on Saturday (one of which was blocked), and Inverness could muster only one on Tuesday. The personnel should have indicated, at least in the mind of your average fan, an all-out assault on their opponents. Instead, Hearts played like they have in any match under Robbie Neilson: they were measured, organised and, for the majority of the time, they were better.
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