Craig Fowler reviews the weekend’s action from the Scottish top flight.
Craig Levein (Hearts)
Midway through the second half of Hearts’ Betfred Cup clash with Raith Rovers last month, an irate supporter got to his feet and started screaming at the away dugout. With his side losing 1-0 to League One opponents, he directed his venom right at Craig Levein, telling the manager to “get to f***” because he was “ruining this club”. One must wonder if the same fan now feels he was a little premature in his criticism of the Hearts boss as, just four games later, things could scarcely be more rosy for those of a maroon persuasion.
Still in the Betfred Cup and top of the league after two games (with maximum points) seemed like a reality that could only exist in a distant universe where football rewards crapness, and yet here we are. Though Levein may have been criticised for a supposedly “scattergun” transfer policy, on the whole the new signings have looked good additions to the squad. Peter Haring and Uche Ikpeazu both sparkled in the win over Celtic, while there’s a real depth to the first-team this year. Steven MacLean, arguably Hearts’ best player of the season thus far prior to Saturday’s match, didn’t even play a minute of the victory, while the hosts held off Celtic’s advances without Christophe Berra for the second half, a notion which would have seemed inconceivable last season.
Levein doesn’t have his critics to seek, though they’ve been very quiet these past couple of weeks.
Kyle Lafferty (Hearts) and Steven Boyd (Hamilton)
There were only three goals in four games on Saturday, so just as well that two of them were absolute belters. It’s hard to pick a winner out of the two. Boyd’s was spectacular, but the technique showed by Lafferty to steer the ball into the bottom corner of the net was out of this world.
Alfredo Morelos (Rangers)
Though Morelos’ red card at Aberdeen last week may have been harsh, even his manager admitted the player naively reacted to provocation from his opponent and gave the officials a decision to make. Many pundits assumed the Colombian would find himself in Gerrard’s doghouse, but he was back in the starting XI against Maribor on Thursday and, after winning his appeal, remained there for the visit of St Mirren on Sunday.
The Rangers boss was vindicated in his decision with Morelos performing tremendously in both matches, where he netted a goal in each. When in form he’s such a handful for defenders. He’s quick, physical, can hold up play and run in behind, and his movement is just frightening at times. We all know his main flaw - a lack of composure in front of goal - but he really seems to be playing with renewed confidence under the new boss.
With back-up Umar Sadiq yet to get up to speed and attempts to bring another striker to the club still ongoing, Rangers will need their first-choice striker to stay in form as they look to reach the Europa League group stages and send an early message to Celtic that this year’s title race will not be a procession.
Zander Clark (St Johnstone)
He may not have been able to keep out Oli Shaw’s close range header, but Saints keeper Zander Clark still impressed in his side’s 1-1 draw with Hibs, including three impressive saves in the first half.
The youngster was once looked upon as the Scotland goalkeeper of the future but stagnated a bit last season, as he shared time with Alan Mannus. With the veteran having left the club, Clark has now been given the chance to prove himself as the undisputed No.1 once again. An slight error in the 2-0 defeat to Kilmarnock last week may not have done him any favours, but he certainly bounced back in style.
Makers of rubber pellets in the Livingston area
We’re used to large, non-green patches on Scottish football parks, but not in the manner witnessed at the Tony Macaroni Arena on Saturday, where Livingston hosted Kilmarnock as they unveiled their new artificial surface for the first-time in the top flight.
While these pitches are far from popular, we’re becoming steadily used to the sight of them in the SPFL. However, this really took the biscuit as the park was completely covered in small black pellets. There were so many of them, in fact, that they flew off the turf with every bounce of the ball, reminiscent of a waterlogged surface. The game finished 0-0 with little quality on offer and we should except more of the same going forward.
Celtic’s squad depth
Brendan Rodgers did seem to be making a point to the Celtic board with his team selection against Hearts. An away match at Tynecastle is not typically viewed by Celtic managers as an opportunity in which to rest players as it’s one of the more keenly anticipated destinations of the domestic season for Hoops fans. However, while he may have been trying to illustrate that he needs reinforcements if the club is to continue its domination in Scottish football, with the AEK Athens tie coming up on Tuesday, and Celtic no longer holding the advantage in that tie, it makes sense that he wanted to prioritise the crucial clash in midweek.
Instead, the real losers from Saturday are the players who came into the team, as none of them impressed in a match where Celtic barely created a chance in 90 minutes. Leigh Griffiths only looked dangerous in patches (and completely disappeared after half-time), Scott Sinclair showed little sign of breaking out of his 2018 slump, Jonny Hayes was as ineffective as ever since his move from Aberdeen, while Jozo Simunovic was more than shaky in defence.
What also doesn’t bode well for Brendan Rodgers was his interview to the Sunday papers, where he stated that, without Dedryck Boyata, Jack Hendry and Kristoffer Ajer were the club’s best central defensive partnership. He must have said this prior to the weekend, where Boyata’s agent came out and slated the club and promised the Belgian would never again play for Celtic. Unless another central defender is signed, that must be a concern for everyone at the club.
Jozo Simunovic (Celtic)
For not being better than Jack Hendry.
Little changed from one week to the next for Neil McCann’s men. Fresh off losing to St Mirren despite creating the better chances, it was a case of deja vu as they contrived to throw away three points from a promising performance against Aberdeen. Strike-partners Jean Mendy and Sofien Moussa are a handful, but the latter has failed to show in his 14 months at the club that he score more than a couple from open play in a season, while Mendy just looks like a quicker, shorter version of his team-mate.
Luckily for them, and unluckily for Dundee, the club’s search for a forward who can burst the net continues after Shrewsbury striker Sam Jones decided against joining the Dens Park outfit.
Motherwell’s formation change
Motherwell were frustrated in their efforts to break down Hamilton on Saturday and manager Stephen Robinson decided to be proactive and make a formation change midway through the second half. Unfortunately for the hosts, the switch from a 3-5-2 to a 3-4-3 didn’t improve their threat going forward, while the absence of an additional midfielder enabled Accies to grow in attack. The visitors would eventually win the game thanks to Steven Boyd’s stunner, leaving Well fans less than impressed with their club’s start to the new campaign. Two played, zero points, zero goals.
Supporters dealing with new expectations
The most enjoyable time to be a football fan, for any club, is right after you’ve been guff for ages. Think about it: you suffer misery for a few years and then, suddenly, you’ve found the light at the end of the tunnel. You drink in every aspect about your new, glorious surroundings. Match reports are poured over, highlights are watched more than once, you continuously check the news about your team. The pain makes the pleasure so much better. It gives you a new lease on life and it’s bloody fantastic.
Maintaining these levels isn’t quite as fun, because expectations have been raised as a result. Disappointing results are magnified, especially as they have become rare in recent months (or even years). It’s the opposite effect of breaking out of a prolonged slump.
Both Hibs and Kilmarnock fans seemed to have difficulty with this over the weekend, as petty squabbles over expectations dominated their leading fans forums.
A small number of Killie fans were said to have booed the full-time whistle after their 0-0 draw with Livingston. To some, this was fair enough. Livi are the leading contenders for relegation and, if Killie want to repeat their top five finish, it’s opposition Steve Clarke’s men should be looking to defeat. On the other hand, they remain undefeated through two games without conceding a goal, which is a massive change compared to the start of last season, where they quickly slumped to the foot of the table and didn’t leave there until Clarke took over.
There were similar squabbles among the Hibs faithful as some wondered whether a draw at St Johnstone was good enough for a side with aspirations of finishing third. Given the fact the Hibees gave two players their league debut, and were playing with John McGinn for the second time, not to mention playing in Europe in each of the last five weeks, it was a decent enough result. Especially when you consider they came from a goal down and last year’s run at second place was achieved despite failing to beat the men from Perth in three attempts.