Hibs, St Mirren and Livingston's top-6 battle takes centre stage, unlikely contender, can Hearts be dragged in
For some reason there remains a loathsome association with the league splitting after 33 games. ‘But teams in the bottom six can finish on more points than those in the top six’ is often the whine. Does it really matter? It makes the league look a bit unusual but do we really care if people outwith the Scottish game find it weird? We shouldn’t! Plus, every manager knows what they are signing up prior for.
The next two rounds of fixtures will separate the sides who continue their quest to earn European football, playing games which matter more post-split, and those who will drift towards the end of the season. Only three teams have so far earned their top-half spot, Celtic, Rangers and Aberdeen, the latter an example of how quickly things can change. On February 1, they were closer in points to 12th place than third. A further four have no hope. Dundee United, Ross County and Kilmarnock are separated by three points at the bottom, while St Johnstone should be looking over their shoulder.
It leaves Hearts, St Mirren and Hibs occupying places four, five and six with Livingston and Motherwell on the outside but looking to wedge their foot in the door. Realistically, it is a case of two from three. Hearts can still be caught by Livingston, six points behind, but it would require a 22-goal swing and the Tynecastle Park side, now under Steven Naismith’s interim charge, host Ross County after this weekend’s Edinburgh derby. Motherwell, sitting eighth, are four points behind Hibs. If there were four pre-split rounds left, Stuart Kettlewell’s men would be favourites to earn their spot having only lost to Rangers in their last seven. They would need six points to give themselves a fighting chance. The slight issue. They travel to Celtic next week.
The main contenders
"Can we still get relegated? I'll sleep better when I know we can't get relegated,” was Stephen Robinson's response regarding the top six and Europe after St Mirren’s 2-0 victory over Hearts last weekend. It was a result which has them on the precipice of their highest league finish since the mid-80s. Therefore it is understandable if both Robinson and the club’s fans are a wee bit guarded, anxious even, especially after missing out on a spot in the top half on goal difference in the 2020/21 season. While they travel to Ibrox this weekend, they currently have a five-point buffer to Livingston, a superior goal difference and have what is the closest thing to a gimme in the Premiership this season in a home clash with Kilmarnock next week.
Finishing in the top six which would then allow for a possible European qualification would be testament to the work Robinson has done in Paisley. They regressed after he replaced Jim Goodwin last season but, over time, he instilled a clear philosophy, a way of playing, a system which the squad have bought into, while also having an excellent summer transfer window. Trevor Carson, Declan Gallagher, Ryan Strain, Alex Gogic, Mark O’Hara, Jonah Ayunga. Hit after hit after hit. It would be wrong to pinpoint individuals. This is a team with the third best defensive record in the league and it is a collective effort, starting from Curtis Main in attack and ending with Carson, one of the best goalkeepers in the league, between the sticks. Surely, SURELY, they are not going to suffer more top six heartache.
Hibs and Livi struggles
Which brings us to Hibs and Livingston. Separated by one solitary point and 15 goals. The Hibees have got themselves into quite the situation in a season of peak, trough, peak and then trough again. A seven-game unbeaten run in the league has given way to four successive defeats. The performances in the losses to Motherwell and Dundee United have been particularly anemic. Just when you think they are about to turn a corner under Lee Johnson they seem to be stopped in their tracks, not helped by an ambitious game plan against Rangers followed up by a trip to Celtic where the team played well but weren’t helped by referee Steven MacLean and questionable officiating.
At his disposal, Johnson has an XI, even with injuries to key players, which would provide pace, energy, finesse and solidity. They would be a force to be reckoned with if it came together and clicked. The Edinburgh derby and ending an eight game winless run would be the perfect tonic going into a trip to, in this writer’s eyes, the worst team in the league in St Johnstone.
Then there is Livi. They have been very un-Livi like recently. They have been passive, directionless and their defending has been all over the shop. In their last ten games they have managed just two wins and conceded three or more goals on six occasions, including to Championship side Inverness CT. David Martindale has taken his share of the blame, noting “it's up to me to find solutions” and “maybe there's a touch of complacency set into the group, including myself”.
They have played a 3-5-2 in their last two fixtures but found themselves 3-0 down at the interval on both occasions. There is perhaps an element of not knowing what the best XI is in the most effective system. Ayo Obileye is missed with January signing Luiyi Perez having a wobble after a promising enough start. They also have the scar tissue of last season when they lost their top six place deep into injury time on the 33rd game.
It simply adds to the fun and drama which the split provides to the Scottish Premiership.
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