• Angus McGregor

Scottish Premiership Matchweek 23 Preview

A busy festive period has saw a number of events happen, with the lead at the top being extended to 19 points whilst the relegation battle is still as competitive as ever. Rangers came out on top in the Old Firm derby thanks to a Callum McGregor own goal, giving Steven Gerrard's side a commanding lead at the top of the table. There were emphatic 3-0 victories for Livingston and Hamilton over Hibs and Motherwell that allowed both victors to move up the table whilst Motherwell moved to second bottom. The points were shared at Rugby Park, Pittodrie and Global Energy Stadium, keeping the bottom half of the table nice and compact, with the gap between 5th and 12th being only 10 points. This weekend brings a host of close affairs that are too close to call, whilst the top 4 all face one another in what could be a big week in Scottish Football.

These two sides have faced off three times this season and in each of those 90 minutes, a winner has not been found. Dundee United managed to come out on top in the Betfred Cup through the penalty shoot out for the extra point but these two teams have struggled to get an advantage over the other, with only one goal scored from each side in these meetings.

It's only 1 win in the last 7 games for Dundee United whose grasp on the top 6 is slowly shrinking with teams below the Tannadice side starting to pick up some momentum. Livingston have already overtaken Micky Mellon's side whilst St Mirren are gaining on United with their 3 games in hand. United aren't in the worst of form as they have only lost 3 of the 7, with two of them being at the hands of the Old Firm, games where anything is a bonus. It's been the same story for most of the season for United where had they applied themselves a bit more going forward, their points tally would be looking a lot more handsome. No team has drawn more games than Dundee United (8) with 4 of those ending scoreless, with United relying on the qualities of Benjamin Siegrist to keep them from suffering a loss. One of these showings was the last league outing against St Johnstone, where the Swiss keeper was on fine form to frustrate the Saints. From here onwards, Micky Mellon will be looking to increase the goal output as it could make all the difference to whether they finish in the top 6 or not.

In many ways, St Johnstone's season has been similar to Dundee United's, with a failing attack costing them on a number of occasions. St Johnstone are the team with the second-most draws (7) and joint lowest wins (4) with the third most goals conceded (31). The main difference between United and Saints is that St Johnstone's defence and goalkeeper have not performed as efficiently. There is only 4 goals of a difference conceded but these have proven to be vital as St Johnstone sit 7 points behind United, even whilst they have scored 2 more than their opponents this weekend. St Johnstone need to tighten up at the back as they have lost 7 games already by a one-goal margin and have only kept 3 clean sheets so far this season. If Callum Davidson can sure up his defence even just a little bit, those losses that turn to draws will make a massive difference come the end of the season. As of right now, in drawing positions, they seem more likely to lose all points than come away with anything.

Predicted Result: Dundee United 1-1 St Johnstone

Two evenly matched sides who haven't been able to get one over the other this season make it hard to see past a draw in this one. The two sides with the most draws this season should add another to their tally this weekend, although St Johnstone may fancy their chances giving how unlucky they were last time out.

Kilmarnock have been unable to keep 11 men on the park in both games against Accies this season, managing to win one whilst losing the most recent outing at the Fountain of Youth Stadium. The last 12 fixtures between the two shows a fairly even spread of results, with Killie winning 5, Accies winning 3 and 4 draws rounding it out.

Goalkeeping errors are often a costly thing and Killie have felt that twice in recent weeks. Danny Rodgers hasn't covered himself in the best of glory recently, letting in a tame effort against Livingston to squander Killie's lead and then walked the ball into his own net against St Mirren to lose his side the 3 points. It is vital that Rodgers bounces back from this quickly or he will lose his place in the side, especially considering how peeved off manager Alex Dyer appeared to be following last weekend's game. It will be frustrating for Killie as they looked to get wins in successive games and missed out through one moment of misjudgement. Nonetheless, Killie have a great chance this weekend to get back to winning ways with Dyer's side surely hungry to make things right this weekend. Consistency has been a hard thing for Killie to maintain and Alex Dyer has received criticism due to this, making a victory in this match imperative to ease pressure.

Hamilton are doing the business yet again with a fantastic 3-0 victory at home to Motherwell last weekend. There was questionable goalkeeping from the opposition but take nothing away from Hamilton's performance as they were fully deserving of this convincing victory. Whenever Accies look down and out, they pull results out of the bag with great resiliency and it appears to be happening again. Hamilton have 11 points from their last 8 games, a run that has seen them more than double their points tally and move out of the automatic and play-off relegation zones. Brian Rice has managed to do this even with a number of injuries and suspensions plaguing his team selections which has improved the morale within the club's support massively. Ever since Rice and co were confronted following the 8-0 loss away to Rangers, Accies have shown more grit and made up for their suggested lack of quality. Accies do have that extra bit of fight that can make all the difference at the make or break time of the season, something many teams near the bottom need to start developing.

Predicted Result: Kilmarnock 1-1 Hamilton Academical

Both teams who haven't strung a lot of positive results consecutively this season will both be looking to capitalise on each other's failings. Kilmarnock are for sure the favourites but their stutterings combined with Accies recent bounce makes this one too close to call.

An early Jamie McGrath strike made all the difference as St Mirren bested Motherwell at Fir Park last month. The two still await to play their postponed fixture which does not have a date arranged yet, with appeals pending to see whether St Mirren forfeit the points or not.

St Mirren are enjoying a good spell of form that has only seen them lose twice in 15 games in all competitions. The two losses have come at the hands of Rangers and Hibs but St Mirren have done a fantastic job of late at taking points off the teams around them. This run of form has moved St Mirren out of the relegation zone and up to 7th place, holding 3 games in hand over 6th placed Dundee United who are only 4 points ahead of the Paisley side. St Mirren are striking a better balance between defence and attack now which is helping Jim Goodwin's side turn many fixtures in their favour and pick up valuable wins. St Mirren are now a contender for the top 6, making Tony Fitzpatrick's claims at the start of the season seem not too bizarre now. St Mirren need to maintain this level of consistency as it is what is separating them from the likes of St Johnstone, Kilmarnock and even their opponents this weekend Motherwell. St Mirren confirmed the pre-contract signing of Eamonn Brophy, a good coup for the club that will boost their attacking quality for next season. Based on Alex Dyer's comments regarding the forward, there is a high possibility that the switch may be made in this transfer window rather than at the end of the season. The Buddies are also in talks with extending the contract of Jake Doyle-Hayes, a player who has been instrumental in the Paisley side's recent resurgence in form.

Motherwell fans will surely be glad to see the end of 2020 as it was an absolutely shocking year for the Fir Park side. With only 6 wins in the calendar year, Stephen Robinson ended up resigning from his role as manager as he was no longer able to get a reaction out of this Motherwell side. For the side who finished third last season to be sitting joint bottom is not good enough as this underperforming team have a lot of work on their hands to turn things around. Hearts proved last season that just because you have a good squad on paper, you're not guaranteed anything and Motherwell need to buck up their ideas soon. Motherwell were shocking against Hamilton, losing 3-0 with a defensive and goalkeeping performances that didn't cover the Lanarkshire sides players in glory. Former Livingston goalkeeper Liam Kelly has joined the club on loan until the end of the season which looks like a great signing based on the shot-stoppers last stint in the top flight. Motherwell will be hoping that there will be a few other additions before the window shuts but will also be wary of potential departures, with Scotland duo Stephen O'Donnell and Declan Gallagher possibly leaving by the end of this transfer window. New manager Graham Alexander will hope to have an immediate impact on his side, although he won't have a lot of time to have an impact on his new team immediately. Alexander comes up with a look to repair his reputation following his sacking from Salford City and the Motherwell job presents him with a great opportunity to make a name for himself up in Scotland.

Predicted Result: St Mirren 1-0 Motherwell

These two sides current form makes the result lie complete in the Buddies favour, with Motherwell really struggling to get points on the board with poor performances lately. St Mirren have a solid backline that shouldn't be too troubled by Motherwell's misfiring forwards and should have enough to sway the result in their favour, just like they did last month.

This game will now take place a day later on the Sunday rather than Saturday, to allow time for the climate to improve as high minus temperatures are expected this weekend. There have been 3 meetings between the two sides with new managers, with Livingston getting the better of the results with 2 wins and a draw.

David Martindale's run as manager could not have gone any better so far with Livi winning all 7 games, scoring 17 and conceding 2 in the process. Livi have really transformed their season with an impressive run of games that sees them their last 4 league games which have all been away from home. The worries of relegation seem to be gone for now as Livi sit 5th in the league following their stunning form with David Martindale surely meriting the December Manager of the Month award. Martindale has got Livi back to basics with their no-nonsense style of play that takes no chances at the back and simply outworks the opposition all over the park. This was most evident in last weekend's emphatic 3-0 victory away at Hibs, a result that shocked many but on the day, could have been a lot more. Livi have a lot of games coming up in the next month and will need to make the most of their squad as they have 9 games to play by the 10th of February. One player who may benefit from this is Alan Forrest, a player who has been unlucky to fall out of the squad in recent weeks despite good performances. Forrest will be hungry to get back into the side and make it hard for Martindale to not include him, especially as the Betfred Cup semi-final approaches. New signing Gavin Reilly will also look to have the chance to cement his place in the team, although that task will be much harder due to the fantastic form Scott Robinson is in. Robinson has 3 goals and 2 assists in his last 5 games and has really flourished in a forward role under Martindale.

John Hughes has certainly brought something that was missing to this Ross County side, picking up 4 points in the last two games. County still sit bottom via goal difference but the more time Hughes spends with this squad, the more organised and hard to break down they will become. The Staggies defending has been an issue since their return to the top flight and if they are to stay up, they will need to improve on their dismal record at the back. Tony Andreu signed for the club on Thursday, reuniting with John Hughes who was his manager way back in the day at Livingston. Andreu will surely not be up to match sharpness but may make a cameo late on, especially if County are chasing a goal. County have been better on the road this season with 3 of their 4 victories coming away from home, including an impressive 2-0 win against Hibs recently. Ross County need to claw some more of these results out of somewhere soon to ease the pressure at the club, although they do have a fairly tough couple of fixtures coming up in the next few weeks.

Predicted Result: Livingston 2-0 Ross County

Livingston have been on such a hot streak of form lately that a loss at home to the side bottom of the table would come as a shock. Livi have been solid against Ross County in each of their recent home games against Ross County and should have the quality to keep this run going.

The game that kicked the season off saw Rangers comfortably come out as 1-0 victors before the reverse fixture had Steven Gerrard's side win by 4 goals to nil. Derek McInnes will be looking for revenge as his side haven't managed to cope with Rangers at all this season.

Discontent continues to build at Aberdeen despite the club sitting in 3rd place as many are growing tired with the club's performances of late. The football hasn't been the most exciting whilst results have began to dip a little, with Aberdeen drawing a lot of games that they should be winning. You can get away with poor football as long as you keep on winning but that hasn't always been the case this season. Aberdeen haven't been punished for these dips though and perhaps other teams inconsistencies will make things look better for Derek McInnes' side but this doesn't hide the fact that Aberdeen are capable of more. Aberdeen are still solid but you can't blame fans for wanting more from their side, especially with some of the talents they have. Ross McCrorie is one of those said players but will miss this weekend, a player whose absence is always noticed for the Dons as they have only won 25% of the games without the on-loan Rangers player. Aberdeen have extended the loan of Greg Leigh, the player who very well may be the one to fill the void left by McCrorie this weekend.

The victory in the Old Firm put Rangers 19 points clear at the table and asserted their dominance over city rivals Celtic all the whilst not even playing that well. Rangers were fairly anonymous in the first half but showed a great sign of champions by pulling through and getting the result, even without having a shot on target. It looks even more certain now that Rangers will canter to the league title but it is imperative that they maintain these high levels of performances and don't give their rivals any hope of getting back into the title race. Rangers main issue in recent years has been slipping up after these big kinds of results but Steven Gerrard has managed to weed these out so far this season. Rangers will be without a number of players this weekend with Ryan Jack, Scott Arfield and Nikola Katic still missing and Kemar Roofe joining the list of casualties. Gerrard may be forced to rotate his side a bit more than he would have wanted to but this also presents the chance for the likes of Ianis Hagi or Cedric Itten to stake their claim in the starting XI. Rangers squad depth has helped them out already this season as they have been largely unscathed when resting players, with performances being maintained throughout. Rangers are unbeaten in the last 6 games against Aberdeen and haven't lost at Pittodrie since October 2018, a run Steven Gerrard will look to extend this Sunday.

Predicted Result: Aberdeen 0-2 Rangers

With the way Rangers have been playing and how Aberdeen have struggled to see teams off lately, a surprise result doesn't appear likely. Rangers should have too much quality for Aberdeen this weekend and maintain their large lead at the top of the table.

Two sides looking to bounce back from disappointing results last weekend will be looking to bounce back this weekend. The last fixture between the two had Celtic clawing back to a 2-2 draw at Easter Road, with Hibs being punished for some slack defending.

Despite going 19 points behind in the league, there were positives to take from Celtic's performance last weekend in the Old Firm. Most noticeably, there appeared to be a real hunger and desire to get in about the opposition, something that was going well until Nir Bitton's sending off that would cost Neil Lennon's side. Celtic need a lot more of that intensity whilst being clinical in front of goal as it has been missing for a large part of this season. It may be too late for Celtic to claw back such a massive gap as the pressure is truly on them to get back into this title race, probably forcing Celtic to win every game for the rest of the season. On paper, that shouldn't be too much of an issue but as we've seen already this season, nothing can be taken for granted. Celtic will be coming into this game off the back of a trip from sunny Dubai, lucky for some. This trip has appeared very questionable due to the current climate of the world but Celtic fans will be hoping it has done their side the world of good. If not, we can only imagine the outrage if standards drop again.

What has happened to Hibs lately? For the 4th best side in the country, a run of 5 games that saw Hibs host Dundee United, St Mirren, Ross County and Livingston whilst facing Rangers away would give fans hope of picking up a large number of points. Instead, Hibs only picked up a shocking 4, losing consecutive home games at the hands of the Staggies and Livi. The Hibees defending has been absolutely horrendous in the past two games as they have conceded 5 with no reply. This is best summed up by the comical defending for Livingston's third goal as Paul Hanlon and Ryan Porteous completely failed to deal with a simple long ball. Hibs need to buck their ideas up as these standards of performances are unacceptable and could see the Leith side fall further behind Aberdeen in the race for 3rd place. Jack Ross has gained a lot of praise this season but now needs to step up to turn things around as Hibs have dropped off big time. If they perform like they did last weekend against Celtic on Monday night, it could be a long night for Jack Ross' side.

Predicted Result: Celtic 3-0 Hibernian

I expect a reaction from Celtic this weekend and with the way Hibs have been performing at the back, I wouldn't be surprised to see Celtic take quite a few of their opponents. Hibs would need to be at their best to get a result on a normal visit to Celtic Park but that looks very unlikely in their current form.

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