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SPL Mid-Season Review – Rangers lead Celtic, as predicted

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Back at the end of August last year I previewed the season ahead in Scotland, including my predictions for each league based on the first couple games of the season. Naturally, I haven’t gotten everything 100%, but as part of a mid-season update and part of a review of my future-telling abilities, here’s how the Scottish Premier League, and the other leagues, are shaping up as it enters the final third of the season.

Rangers, as I predicted, lead the way. Their current four point gap over Celtic is hardly insurmountable, but that being said they’ve impressed on league business this season. Not that Celtic haven’t of course, but as the present gap shows, Rangers at present have the edge that could bring them the title. Rangers acquitted themselves well on the European stage and were perhaps unlucky not to go through to the last 16. Instead a last 32 UEFA Cup meeting with Panathanaikos beckons, along with a CIS Cup final against Dundee United.

Celtic on the other hand did book their place in the second phase of the Champions’ League, but were put out of the CIS Cup by Hearts, who then fell to Rangers at the semi-final stage. They are, as mentioned, four points adrift of Rangers in the league but it should stay close for the rest of the season. With both sides strengthening (although it could be argued that Celtic did this far more effectively) it should be a close-fought title race not unlike that of 2002 (won by Rangers on goal-difference), but it’s unlikely that we’ll see a season run as close at that for quite some time.

As predicted, Hearts have struggled with the numerous personnel changes and uncertainty over just exactly who the manager is. While stability has been ever so slightly regained with the appointment of Stephen Frail as (caretaker) manager, they still look shaky and are unlikely to repeat last season’s fourth place finish. Indeed, stuck all the way down in ninth, they’ll be looking to secure a top-six finish before anything else.

Aberdeen have certainly been the mercurial side of the year, in that the fans are never quite sure which side will show up on the day. Will it be the fantastic side that thrashed FC Copenhagen 4-0 to book a place in the last 32 of the UEFA Cup and set up a glamour tie against Bayern Munich? Or will it be the side that were beaten off the park in the CIS Cup semi final 4-1 by an impressive Dundee United side to end the hopes of a first appearance in a cup final since Jimmy Calderwood took over? The fans are of course, concerned. With Chris Clark and Michael Hart leaving in the transfer window after rejecting new contract offers, the squad clearly needs strengthened, with more than just loan signings. Time for the board to give the two Jimmies some of the money that was reportedly promised.

Clearly my worst prediction of the season has seen my favourites for third place, Hibernian, struggle. Undoubtedly the reported friction between chairman Rod Petrie and manager John Collins didn’t help matters. And under another former club legend, the Hibees should start to go from strength to strength. Mixu Paatelainen is as familiar with Scottish football as he is with Finnish, making the only foreign manager in the league look decidedly British in his approach. His signings have been good and the players seem happier under him than they did with Collins. The fans will be hoping the good times begin to roll once again.

Kilmarnock have been the biggest disappointment of the season. But then they’ve struggled since the loss of Stevie Naismith, and I had backed him to bring them success if he were to stay. Unfortunately for them, £2m was just too much to turn down and he moved to Rangers. Even more depressing however, was the departure of this season’s top scorer at the club, Colin Nish, first signing a pre-contract agreement with Hibs before moving to them permanently. They’ve been unable to replace him and other players that they lost, and that has put them in the position they’re in just now. Second bottom. They won’t go down, but any other season they may have.

As for the rest, both Dundee United and Motherwell are proving me right as they sit third and fourth respectively. United have strengthened as much as they could in January and should continue to press for a third place finish, and they also have a cup final to think about with the CIS Cup final against Rangers surely more than a small thought in their minds. Motherwell, of course, have had to deal with the tragedy of captain Phil O’Donnell’s untimely passing. This, coupled with the uncertainty over their manager’s future as he chased (albeit somewhat unwillingly) the Scotland manager’s job. With that now past them, they’ll look to build on their excellent form in 2007 and move past United with the three games in hand they hold over their rivals. With the gap just a solitary point, few would bet against it.

Inverness CT and Falkirk are holding their own and are both equal on points with Hibs and ahead of Hearts in sixth and seventh. I can’t imagine either pushing into the top 6 but if one of them is going to do it, it will no doubt be Inverness, who have been revitalised since Craig Brewster’s return, just as predicted. St. Mirren are the closest side to second-bottom Killie, but the four point gap may be too much for them to make up. Like Kilmarnock, St. Mirren won’t go down, but that’s only because Gretna have been dead certs since the moment they came up. They went the completely wrong way about trying to stay up when January came around and they filled the club up with about half a dozen loan signings, mostly from the lower reaches of the Championship. They also dumped several of their first team regulars from the past few seasons. It doesn’t bode well for them come next season, where an entire squad rebuilding will have to take place.

Dundee and St. Johnstone continue to press leaders Hamilton in the first division, whilst the two promoted sides, Stirling Albion and Morton occupy 10th and 9th, roughly as predicted. Ross County lead the second division ahead of Airdrie United, just as predicted, while East Fife are running away with the third division.

So it is with excitement that I look towards the end of the season, let’s see if I’m proved right in the end!

My predicted table:

1. Rangers
2. Celtic
3. Hibs
4. Aberdeen
5. Hearts
6. Kilmarnock
7. Dundee United
8. Motherwell
9. St. Mirren
10. Falkirk
11. Inverness CT
12. Gretna

The actual table:

1. Rangers
2. Celtic
3. Dundee United
4. Motherwell
5. Aberdeen
6. Hibs
7. Inverness CT
8. Falkirk
9. Hearts
10. St. Mirren
11. Kilmarnock
12. Gretna

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