Scottish Premiership Matchweek 16 Preview
Last weekend saw another round of the Betfred Cup, with 9 of the 12 Scottish Premiership clubs in action. Livingston and Rangers eased past lower league opposition in the form of Ayr United and Falkirk with emphatic 4-0 victories whilst Hibs secured their place in the next round with a 1-0 win over Dundee. There were three all Premiership clashes as a Joe Lewis mistake cost Aberdeen dearly, losing 2-1 against Jim Goodwin's St Mirren with St Johnstone coming back from a goal down to see off Motherwell 2-1. And of course, the biggest talking point of the weekend came from Celtic Park as Ross County added to Celtic's misery with a stunning and well deserved 2-0 victory. Neil Lennon appears to have survived the axe for another week but the league had its first managerial departure of the season last Thursday, with Gary Holt ending his time at Livingston.
The league had another shakeup as it was decided that St Mirren and Kilmarnock would be given 3-0 forfeits due to their breaches in COVID regulations, with Motherwell picking up 6 points that takes them to 5th place and Hamilton now being level with the Buddies at the bottom of the league. This controversial decision could have massive implications on the rest of the season and has set a precedent that the league officials have to now follow in the future, whether the same treatment is consistent will have to be seen. Regardless, this weekend's action brings another massive week for a number of teams in the league, both at the top and bottom, as pressures continue to rise in this season of Scottish Football.
Ross County Vs Rangers
A James Tavernier penalty and a last-minute Brandon Barker effort gave Rangers a 2-0 victory in the first meeting between these two sides this season. County showed some defensive solidity throughout this fixture, only offering 4 shots on goal, albeit Rangers having a massive 72% share of the possession.
You never know what Ross County defence is going to show up and their last two results are the most perfect example of their frustrating inconsistency. Last time out in the league, County were downed 3-1 by a Kilmarnock side who were down to 10 men for 82 minutes, a very poor result and showing considering the circumstances. However, that certainly seems to have been brushed to the side due to Stuart Kettlewell's sides phenomenal performance against Celtic last weekend. County were exceptional all over the park and kept Celtic limited to very few chances. The likes of Alex Iacovitti, Coll Donaldson and Josh Reid were in top form and didn't look like a defence who had conceded 26 goals in 15 league games this season. Stuart Kettlewell will need a similar level of performance this weekend as they welcome Rangers to Victoria Park with an expectancy of a barrage incoming. Last weekend's result will be a massive boost to the confidence of the players but they will certainly be in for a tougher afternoon this coming Sunday. This weekend brings another free hit for the Staggies who will give their all and hope to pull off another shocking upset against a Glasgow giant.
A 4-0 victory against Aberdeen put Rangers 11 points clear at the top of the table and another 4-0 win over Falkirk saw Steven Gerrard's side progress into the next round of the Betfred Cup. Back to back draws against Benfica and a 3-2 success over Standard Liege has secured Rangers' progression to the knockout rounds of the Europa League for a second successive season, a massive achievement for the Ibrox side. The game against Standard Liege is probably the sloppiest - at least the first half for sure - that Rangers have played this season. There wasn't the usual energy and defensive solidity within the first half of the game but it is telling of how good a side Rangers are right now that they went into the break level. After conceding twice, Rangers showed great character and slowly came into the game and got their reward through a tremendously worked Scott Arfield goal. The Gers are now through with a game left to go which presents Steven Gerrard the opportunity to rotate and rest some key players, albeit he has done a great job in doing so this season already. Everything seems to be going right for Rangers and its hard to see it going wrong anytime soon. Gerrard will be on his side's case at all times to make sure they avoid slipping into complacency and will be fully aware of the problems County could cause them on a small park this weekend.
Key Battle: Josh Reid Vs James Tavernier
It'll be a similar gameplan from Ross County as they face the other half of the Old Firm with an expectancy to sit back and defend for their lives. Rangers are most certainly likely to offer a bigger threat than Celtic though, largely due to the creative presences they have on the flanks. The Celtic/Ross County game was screaming for someone to exploit the wings but it never came as the game was played into the Staggies hands. Ross County will have to be much more wary of the wings this Sunday as they come up against the league's top scorer and creator, James Tavernier. If they can keep the Rangers captain quiet, they have a good chance of picking up a result although that is easier said than done.
Predicted Result: Ross County 1-4 Rangers
Motherwell Vs Hibernian
Jordan White had a goal disallowed as Hibs and Motherwell drew 0-0 in a fairly uneventful affair back in August. With only two shots on target from each side, fans will be hoping for a much more interesting match as Hibs travel to Fir Park.
Motherwell have been wildly inconsistent this season but looked to be turning a corner as they recorded convincing back to back victories over Ross County and Livingston. However, Motherwell seem to have returned to that inconsistency with a loss to Celtic before failing to beat St Johnstone on two occasions. The two games against St Johnstone could be significant as they failed to come out on top in a doubleheader against a side that they finished 10 points clear of last season. Motherwell were the best of the rest last season but on current form, they don't look likely to reach the same heights and their top 6 hopes could even be in jeopardy. The squad at Fir Park are definitely capable of better but it doesn't seem to be clicking for them this season. Some Motherwell fans described the 2-1 loss against St Johnstone as their worst performance of the season with defensive mistakes costing them a great chance of progressing in this season's Betfred Cup. After the highs of last season, it might be hard for Motherwell fans to take this clear regression from their current squad with big improvement needed. The bright spark for Motherwell continues to be Tony Watt, with the striker scoring his 5th goal of the season as he continues to cement the centre forward position of his own. Motherwell will undoubtedly be boosted by the fact they have been given a couple of 3-0 victories against Kilmarnock and St Mirren who the league have deemed to have breached protocols put in place by the league. Motherwell now sit in 5th place, jumping up 4 positions without kicking a ball. It is a tremendous piece of luck for the club who look in a much better place than their form this season suggests.
Hibs are another side who have suffered from a bit of inconsistency in recent weeks, with only 2 wins in their last 6 games, both against Championship side Dundee in the Betfred Cup. Hibs looked clear to be the team who would finish the season in 3rd place but there seems to be little issues creeping up that is causing them problems. Defensive mistakes are becoming more frequent for Jack Ross' side and the loss of Paul Hanlon to injury will not help improve things at Easter Road. The next run of games does bring a great chance for Hibs to build some good form with a host of winnable games coming up before the New Year. Jamie Murphy is a player who has been on great form recently and appears to be linking up well with Kevin Nisbet as Hibs will always offer a great threat going forward with their attacking options. Murphy's winner against Dundee was his second in 3 games, whilst Kevin Nisbet's assist was his 13th goal involvement of the season. Nisbet has been a revelation and has taken to the top flight better than anyone expected and if he continues like this, you have to fancy him to make his way into Steve Clarke's Scotland side.
Key Battle: Declan Gallagher Vs Kevin Nisbet
Motherwell need leaders in this tough spell and Gallagher has to lead by example at the back. Facing up against one of the league's brightest hitmen, it will be a tough afternoon and Gallagher will need to marshal his team to avoid being punished like they did against St Johnstone. Nisbet will be on hand to be a nuisance against a less than convincing Motherwell backline and look to add to his already impressive record.
Predicted Result: Motherwell 1-1 Hibernian
St Mirren Vs Aberdeen
Last weekend saw these two teams face off in the Betfred Cup with a Jamie McGrath shot being fumbled by Dons captain Joe Lewis to send the Buddies into the next round of the cup. Aberdeen don't have to wait long to try and exact some revenge as they look to bounce back from a poor spell of games.
The last couple of weeks have been great for St Mirren and based on their displays, they will be safe from relegation this season. St Mirren aren't the most spectacular side but they are incredibly solid with a great backline who will keep them in games which is the main thing that separates the Buddies from the others at the bottom. The win over Livingston will give Jim Goodwin's side a massive psychological boost for the future fixtures against those sides fighting relegation but last weekend's performance against Aberdeen will bring even more confidence to the Paisley side. Unfortunately, the Buddies have now had to surrender two of the fixtures they had in hand, which has allowed Hamilton to sit level with Jim Goodwin's side on points due to the Paisley side's 3-0 forfeit. St Mirren will feel very hard done by due to the punishments handed out to teams earlier this season but will have to get on with things whether they feel it is fair or not. St Mirren still have a single game in hand but have suffered a massive blow as their opportunity to create some distance from the bottom of the table has been taken away from them.
It will be very worrying for Aberdeen fans that the loss of Ross McCrorie and Lewis Ferguson has made such a massive negative impact on their performances. Yes, they are two quality players but the drop off without them is far too big for a club like Aberdeen who want to try and compete. The last week has seen Aberdeen draw to Hamilton and lose to St Mirren, which is unacceptable and has saw a great chance of making it to another cup final be squandered. The replacements for the aforementioned missing duo haven't done themselves any justice and it will be concerning for Derek McInnes that a few players missing has such a massive impact on his team's performances. Aberdeen have been unlucky this season with injuries but should still be capable of more against teams near the bottom, especially if they want to secure European football for next season. There's an instant chance for these players to put things right as they face St Mirren for the second time in a week but will need to be a lot better to boost the mood at Pittodrie just now.
Key Battle: Jake Doyle-Hayes Vs Funso Ojo
Two midfielders who have different impacts on their club in recent weeks, Doyle-Hayes has been a positive addition to the St Mirren midfield in recent weeks. Doyle-Hayes brings a bit of composure going forward whilst working hard in the middle of the park, whilst Funso Ojo hasn't quite had the best of impacts since arriving in the Granite City. With the likes of Ferguson and McCrorie likely to return very soon, the chances to break into the starting XI will become even slimmer for Ojo and should he want to make an impact at the club, he has to do so starting Saturday.
Predicted Result: St Mirren 1-1 Aberdeen
Hamilton Academical Vs Kilmarnock
Accies were unable to capitalise on an Eamonn Brophy red card as a second-half Nicke Kabamba strike secured three points for Alex Dyer's side. Hakeem Odofin was on the scoresheet scoring his third goal of the season with the defender remaining the Accies top goalscorer this season.
The draw against Aberdeen could be massive for Brian Rice as the Accies manager was under great pressure following a truly dismal spell of results. The 1-1 draw was the first time Accies had avoided defeat in the league since September, a run that has seen them drop to the foot of the table, joint bottom now with St Mirren due to the Buddies having to forfeit 3-0 against Accies for breaching COVID protocols. It is only 1 point out of a possible 18 but is the sort of result that Accies do so well to achieve every season and come the end of the season, could make a big difference. Combine this with the luck of being awarded a victory without playing, it's the kind of things that seem to go in Accies favour and help them miraculously stay up come the end of the season. Accies do need to build upon this quickly or they will find themselves adrift at the bottom and force them to play catch up. With the squad they have, it only seems to be past season's reputations that will give them hope in the eyes of many punters.
The 3-1 victory over Ross County showed the great spirit of this Kilmarnock side and not for the first time this season. Battling for 80 minutes with 10 men and scoring 3 times shows great character and ended a run of 3 league games without a win. The likes of Chris Burke and Nicke Kabamba have stepped up yet again and have put the Ayrshire side in the top 6. Killie need to maintain a better level of consistency to stay in the top 6 as they drop in and out of the upper half each and every week, failing to capitalise on the failings of the likes of Motherwell and St Johnstone. Alex Dyer's side have managed to shrug off upsets against clubs near the bottom of the league this season which should give them the expectancy to go to Hamilton and take all three points. Dyer's side will be without Stuart Findlay who was sent off against Ross County two weeks ago, with a failed fast-tracked appeal seeing the centre-half complete a one-game suspension this weekend.
Key Battle: Hakeem Odofin Vs Gary Dicker
Brian Rice has recently deployed top-scoring defender Hakeem Odofin in the middle of the park in what is an interesting decision. The former Livingston man is tenacious and will give his all but isn't the best on the ball, with Rice hoping Odofin can be more of a menace than anything else. It could be a tough day for Odofin has he comes up against Gary Dicker and Alan Power, two of the leagues veteran midfielders. Dicker and co are intelligent with vast experience to their names and could exploit Odofin's weaknesses on the ball and propel attacks to cause Accies problems.
Predicted Result: Hamilton Academical 0-2 Kilmarnock
Livingston Vs Dundee United
The first meeting between these two sides brought an unusual looking Livingston kit and even more unusual away victory. A last-minute Alan Forrest goal gave Livi their only away win of the season so far, with Nicky Clark's stunning free-kick being cancelled out by a great finish by Livi's Jon Guthrie earlier on.
For the first time in over two years, Livingston will take to league competition without Gary Holt at the helm. Following a very poor showing in a 1-0 home loss to St Mirren, Holt commented that his time at the club could be up if he found that he didn't feel he could get more out of his players. 5 days later, Holt had resigned and Livingston were on the lookout for a new manager. Holt is a victim of his own success as Livi are now contending in an area that their budget would suggest following a couple of fantastic seasons. The Lions sit in 10th place with 2 league wins from their last 9 games as the West Lothian club have really struggled to garner consistency whilst their incredible home form has evaporated. Davie Martindale was in charge for the weekend's game against Ayr United as the Lions came out firing in a 4-0 victory. 3 goals in the first 12 minutes was the perfect start to life after Holt as Livi did look envigorated, albeit against a lower league side. Time will only tell if Livi can turn their situation around as they hunt for a new manager, with Martindale the favourite amongst other candidates such as former captain Liam Fox and Kelty Hearts' Barry Ferguson. A fresh beginning could be exactly what this Livi side needs to kickstart their season as their squad is capable of a lot more. Martindale will be in charge again this weekend but fans will be hoping there is a decision made soon, especially as the January transfer window is not too far away. Jason Holt will be unavailable for the Lions as he finishes his 2 game suspension.
Dundee United continue to baffle many this season as they haven't played particularly well this season but have stayed in the top 6 for most of this season. United aren't attacking as they should but deserve credit for continuing to grind out results, they haven't lost in the league since the encounter against Livingston in early October which has seen them sit in 6th place - and that is only because Motherwell have taken their place in 5th due to points given by forfeiting teams. Benjamin Siegrist has been a massive part of United's success as the Swiss keeper has 3 clean sheets in the last 5 games with noteworthy performances against St Johnstone and Aberdeen earning the keeper many plaudits. There is still plenty of time for Micky Mellon to get balance in his side's performances and many will believe that we are yet to see the best of United's attacking talents, particularly Lawrence Shankland. Shankland will need to get in form quick if he wants to go to the Euro's next summer as he now faces competition from a number of different players. The last set of games has saw Shankland become 4th or 5th choice striker and may fall further down the pecking order if he doesn't improve on his current tally of 2 goals this season. The Euro's should be all the motivation Shankland needs to get back to his best and if he gets going, United could very well stay in the top 6 for the rest of the season. United will be without Micky Mellon and his coaching staff as they tested positive for COVID, meaning that academy coach Thomas Courts could be leading on the touchline for this weekend's game.
Key Battle: Marvin Bartley Vs Calum Butcher
Marvin Bartley hasn't quite been at his best this season, with Livi failing to win midfield battles that has seen calls for the Lions skipper to possibly be dropped. One of the occasions this season though that Bartley did show his capabilities was against Dundee United as Livi battled and halted Dundee United from going forward. Calum Butcher needs to have a much more combative performance against the veteran midfielder as it was too easy at times for Livi to get the better of the United midfield.
Predicted Result: Livingston 2-1 Dundee United
Celtic Vs St Johnstone
The 2-0 win for Celtic over St Johnstone is the last time this season you could say that fans of the Glasgow side were content with their performances this season. A couple of late goals from Leigh Griffiths and Patryk Klimala managed to see off a stubborn St Johnstone side whilst giving fans a boost before the first Old Firm game of the season. Oh how long ago that seems now.
The same problems continue to haunt Celtic as their defensive problems have cost them yet again in recent weeks. It is now 12 goals conceded in the last 4 games for Celtic and a truly dismal record of 2 wins in 11 games for Neil Lennon's side. That form would be unacceptable for most teams in the division, never mind from the reigning Champions. With that in mind, it is understandable for why Celtic fans are unhappy with the club's proceedings, with the awful loss against Ross County leading to some nasty scenes outside the ground following the club's departure from the Betfred Cup. The Hoops looked tactically inept against Ross County as the Highland side completely frustrated Celtic and deservedly went through whilst not being under too much trouble despite the possession stats. A tough away trip against AC Milan only showcased Celtic's poor defensive performances furthermore, a 4-2 loss after Tom Rogic and Odsonne Edouard gave the Glasgow side a shock early lead. Vasilios Barkas and Hatem Abd Elhamed didn't cover themselves in glory as Celtic were brushed aside far too easily and were rightfully punished for their slack defending. Already 11 points behind - with two games in hand - this weekend's game is massive as Celtic really can't afford to fall further behind in the league. If they do, who knows what the scenes will be like outside Celtic Park.
It seems to be a similar season to last for St Johnstone. A fairly uninspiring start to the season had many writing off Callum Davidson's side early on but St Johnstone are now proving those doubters wrong. Unbeaten in 10 games, the Saints now only sit a point outside the top 6 and have got the better of Motherwell and Kilmarnock in recent weeks, two sides who they'll be contesting with to reach the top 6. Goals were hard to come by for St Johnstone with an infamous run of 7 league games bringing only 1 goal for Davidson's side. It's now 9 in the last 5 for St Johnstone as David Wotherspoon looks to have recaptured some goalscoring form. Youngsters Ali McCann and Calum Hendry have also been back amongst the goals, with the latter hopefully kicking on from his goal last weekend against Motherwell. Hendry finished the 2019/20 season strong but has failed to get going in this campaign but as Saints improve all over, the chances will come for the highly regarded youngster. Saints are moving in the right direction under Davidson and with how Celtic have been recently, they'll fancy their chances of causing problems for Neil Lennon's side.
Key Battle: Christopher Jullien Vs Stevie May
Most teams won't be as scared of going to Celtic Park as they know they can get a couple of chances against a shaky Celtic defence, it's just whether or not you can capitalise on them. Stevie May will have a tough afternoon but will know that if he applies himself and gets stuck in, he can cause issues for a Celtic backline who are low on confidence. Christopher Jullien is an odd player in the sense you don't know what version will show up. Sometimes he's solid but also, he can be dragged into these battles and come out worse off, like last weekend up against Ross Stewart. Celtic need to be more dominant at the back as it sets the tempo for the team and can't have the likes of May winning the 50/50s.
Predicted Result: Celtic 2-1 St Johnstone