Saturday, February 13, 2010

The merry-go-round continues

Another match day looms and another face dons the grease paint to join the cast of SPL managers.

Only four of this season's top flight - Rangers, St Johnstone, St Mirren and Hamilton - have the same man in charge as they did on the final day of last season. If that hasn't seemed to lift the staleness from the league then it also worth noting that, of the present incumbents, John Hughes, Mark McGhee, Jimmy Calderwood and Jim Jefferies were at other SPL clubs last May. Plus ca change...

It's also worth pointing out that Falkirk, Kilmarnock and Dundee United have given their new managers only short term contracts. Although even a short term contract would be considered a luxury at Ibrox.

It must all mean something.

As we ponder that let's look ahead to this weekend's fixtures:

Aberdeen v Celtic

Aberdeen fans relishing the prospect of a famous lunchtime win over Celtic will have been disheartened by Mark McGhee's suggestion that he'll be resting some of his star players (can't be a long list, can it? Apologies in advance Dons fans.) for the bigger fights ahead. Presumably he has his eyes on the Scottish Cup but with the league season entering its business end and a top six place to play for it seems a strange decision. Maybe it's bit of kidology. If nothing else it will have given the denizens of pubs across Aberdeen and Govan something to discuss over their white wine spritzers last night.

It's unlikely that this will have given rise to any complacency from Tony Mowbray. It's too early to tell if his new look side have turned the corner, if they're on the approach road that leads to the corner or if they've found a cul-de-sac. Closing the gap on Rangers by a couple of points made this a good week for Celtic but the eight points that remain are the better indication of the season so far and the mountain they still have to climb.

So where does all this leave the game tomorrow? In an away win no matter what side Aberdeen deign to field.

Hamilton v Motherwell

Motherwell's good form under Craig Brown continued into the midweek draw with Rangers and they were feeling rightly aggrieved to be denied the second goal that would probably have sealed the win. At the same time Hamilton were quickly bouncing off the bottom of the league with a somewhat unlikely win over Dundee United. So both sides should be feeling quite sprightly heading into this neighbourhood clash.

It's difficult to say how this one will go. I suppose there's a chance that the Motherwell players will freeze when asked to play on a foreign substance like grass. If that doesn't happen then I'll go for a scoring draw.

Hearts v Falkirk

Even one of life's eternal optimists would be hard pushed to say that Jim Jefferies' return to Tynecastle has proved a triumphant homecoming thus far. Without a win and dumped out of the League Cup, JJ is now fully aware of the magnitude of the task in hand. But things could have been worse. He could have taken over a team at the bottom of the league.

Which brings us neatly to Steven Pressley who is not so much dipping his toe in the managerial waters as diving right in with the sharks. If he has ever dreamed of returning to Tynecasle as a manager then it's probably safe to say his fantasies haven't involved a bedraggled Falkirk side who have spent much of the season doing a grand impression of being relegation fodder.

So, much for all concerned to chew over in Gorgie today. The likeliest outcome? The safest bet would probably be to put your money on it being a poor game. The odds might not work out in your favour though. I'll take a draw, low on thrills and even lower on goals.

Kilmarnock v St Johnstone

A cup run, a win over Celtic and a big, big relegation win at Falkirk on Wednesday. Life is suddenly all sunbeds and plaudits for Jimmy Calderwood. Sometimes managers and clubs fit each other. You could never say that Jimbo looked to be in his natural habitat at Pittodrie. I've got a hunch that Rugby Park might be a more comfortable home.

Recent form suggests that these two sides are evenly matched. I'd expect them to move into the SPL's no man's land in the coming weeks with the top six out of reach and relegation but a distant threat. I've felt all season that St Johnstone have been on the brink of the run of results that would more than confirm their survival. It's not quite happened yet although they should be feeling relatively safe already.

As for today's game, it's probably going to be another tight one but I think Kilmarnock's run will continue. Home win.

St Mirren v Dundee United

Is Gus McPherson feeling the pressure? An understanding board and the prospect of a cup final would suggest that he's safe for now but he'll be getting uneasy at the bad run of results that has seen St Mirren fail to win in the last five league games.

But naked statistics tell only half the story. Wednesday night's draw with St Johnstone completed a nine day sequence that included a semi final win over Hearts and an impressive draw with Rangers in the Scottish Cup.

So United won't be relishing the trip to Paisley on the back of defeat to Hamilton on Wednesday night. With Hibs travelling to Ibrox tomorrow this would be a good time a for display of bouncebackability. And I think they'll do just that. Away win.

Rangers v Hibernian

The SPL's match of the weekend has the potential to have big ramifications on the eventual outcome of the season. Lest we were in any doubt about the significance of this one, Sky have taken the unusual step of covering a game in Glasgow that doesn't involve both sides of the Old Firm.

For all the plaudits that John Hughes has won for his attacking philosophy it is as much the spirit he has created that has carried Hibs this season. This was again evident on Wednesday as they hauled back Aberdeen to get a point after being two down at half time.

Rangers remain dominant although Walter Smith will be more than aware that against both St Mirren and Motherwell they have been second best in for long stretches. There have been times this season when that wouldn't have stopped them nabbing the win but in the last two games that's seemed beyond them.

After an especially disjointed performance at Fir Park they'll be happy to be back at home tomorrow but Hibs have actually fared better against the Old Firm this season when released from the pressure of an expectant Easter Road crowd. That Hughes inspired spirit was also evident in the way they weathered the storm before stealing the win at Celtic last month.

So in theory this should be a close one. But we said that when Rangers visited Leith in December before discovering that the loss of the quickest goal in SPL history couldn't derail them from a convincing win.

Walter Smith's second coming at Ibrox has been marked his team's ability to respond to setbacks. The past week might only have been a blip but he will again search for that response tomorrow. Will he get it? It won't be easy and there will be goals. I'll give Hibs the nod to edge it by the odd goal. That should spice up the top of the table for a while longer yet.

105 games completed (the odd number is because I kind of lost track of the postponed games during the snow and I can't really be arsed working it all out with the rearranged fixtures). A famous four on Wednesday takes me up to a heady 43 results called correctly.

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