Saturday, December 10, 2011

East v West: The SPL Today

It seems like ages since I tickled the malnourished belly of the SPL with a wildly inaccurate prediction post.

I think the last time I Nostradamus-ed the weekend action Rangers had won the title and Motherwell were about to take the Champion's League by storm.

What a difference an eight point swing makes.

Five east versus west clashes today. It's the SPL's very own version of China's economic boom facing off against western capitalism.

Hibs v Rangers


Hibs threatened a winning start under new manager Pat Fenlon at Motherwell last week. Then a floodlight fire became the latest opponent to beat them this season.

In the 45 minutes that were completed the team looked more organised, more aware of their roles and more prepared to fight for the cause then they have on numerous occasions in the last 18 months.

So far, and it's far too early to form even an embryonic conclusion, so good.

Tough task today though.

12 games and over five years since Hibs beat Rangers at Easter Road. That game featured a double from Chris Killen, a consolation for Rangers debutant Filip Sebo and red cards for Killen and an English youngster called Phil Bardsley.

It seems a lifetime ago.

And it seems like longer than just a few games since Rangers were apparently coasting to the title.

Suddenly Celtic managed to hit some form while Rangers became stuttery. Crucially they've also found goals - from open play at least - hard to come by.

The result has been 14 points in the seven games since they beat Hibs at Ibrox.

Far from a disastrous run of form - the 1-0 defeat at Kilmarnock remains the only loss of the season - but enough of a stumble to concede much of the advantage built up over Celtic.

Add to the mix this week's imbroglio over Sone Aluko and the somewhat hysterical reaction of Ally McCoist on Thursday and we have Fenlon's Irish eyes smiling at catching Rangers at just the right time?

Perhaps not. Fenlon's the new boy but not an ingenue.

Rangers remain top of the league. Hibs remain a point off bottom with only six points from eight home games.

That divergence in positions is not a fluke.

Rangers are a better team than Hibs. And Hibs have been desperately poor at times this season.

Even with a misfiring Rangers anything but an away win will be a shock.

Aberdeen v St Mirren


It's now an apparently essential narrative of each SPL season that we have a few months with Aberdeen in crisis.

That this happens despite changes of management and playing staff suggests that something is rank rotten off the pitch.

Which is a concern. But the more pressing issue is engineering a way to move off the bottom of the table with a misfiring team.

For the moment I'd say Craig Brown remains worthy of the chance to take charge of navigating these choppy waters. But he needs to get a reaction from his team quickly.

Danny Lennon's St Mirren continue to have their unseemly grapples with consistency but you're likely to see more smiles in Paisley than in Aberdeen at the moment.

A trip to bottom of the table Aberdeen is the sort of game St Mirren should win if their assault on the top six is to gain momentum.

A home game against St Mirren is the type of game Aberdeen should see as winnable if they are to escape their current plight.

A recipe for a draw.

Celtic v Hearts


Footballers live in a footballing bubble that allows them to block out off the field problems and boardroom intrigue by virtue of a heady mix of footballing obsession and a general lack of interest that borders on brainlessness.

Until you stop paying their wages. Then all that shit can suddenly get serious.

Which might explain why Hearts' form has dipped. One win out of six and only three goals scored in that run.

That they remain fifth in the table is proof that this has not become a team of hirpling incompetents in the space of a few weeks.

But they are being caught up in off-field complications and it's hurting them.

That backdrop would seem to make this a hell of a bad time to be meeting an invigorated Celtic in Glasgow.

Paulo Sergio will need to discover something Churchillian to inspire the spirit to withstand what we can expect to be a hooped onslaught.

I suspect he might be found wanting. Home win.

Dunfermline v Kilmarnock


Dunfermline haven't won a home game in the SPL this season. They've taken four points from eight games at East End Park, scored eleven and conceded 22.

That's a bad run. If the teams around them start picking up points then it's a run that could become fatal.

Now would be a good time to start doing something about it. That's not easy at the best of times. It's a whole lot harder with nine or ten players out injured.

Kilmarnock have beaten Rangers and Aberdeen since taking only a point from games against Hibs and Inverness.

They are perhaps the enigmas of this SPL season with a manager who is as compelling as he is at times quite bizarre. One does get the feeling that a Kenny Shiels inspired Kilmarnock are in line for an odd journey this year.

They are sixth though and will look at today's fixtures as a great chance to go fifth and pick up something on either Motherwell or St Johnstone.

Away win.

Inverness v Dundee United


Peter Houston seems to have weathered the storm that saw calls for his head just a couple of months ago.

But United still don't quite convince. That's hardly a sin in a league where quality and consistency is well rationed but it does, just maybe, point to a few rocky weeks still to come this season.

Inverness and Terry Butcher continue to dodge along, hearts proudly worn on sleeves, a sustained run of form tantalisingly out of reach.

I've a feeling these two will both finish in the bottom six and won't be separated by that many points.

That would suggest today will be a close one.

Draw.

St Johnstone v Motherwell


Steve Lomas has picked up both a touchline ban and seven points from his first three SPL games as St Johnstone manager.

An impressive bag of swag to collect from the trips to Ibrox and Tynecastle that sandwiched a comprehensive home over Hibs.

They've even opened up a tiny bit of breathing space in fourth place.

It's the sort of seamless change of manager that you expect St Johnstone would have been searching for.

Onwards and upwards?

The best way to show that intent would be to beat third placed Motherwell, very much this season's success story.

I've seen Motherwell twice. At Easter Road they delivered one of the most one-sided 1-0 tonkings you're ever likely to see. But in the abbreviated match against Hibs last Friday they looked slightly toothless against an organised Hibs defence and a hardworking midfield.

Thirdagainst fourth and much to admire in both teams. It would be nice if this game could deliver something a wee bit special.

St Johnstone are looking good and that's coupled with a touch of momentum. That means, just, a home win for me.

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