Saturday, March 17, 2012

SPL: Capital gains

Moan out of the way first: I'm not sure Scottish football is playing to those strengths it still has by scheduling a cup final and an Edinburgh derby on the same day.

But that's just the way it is.

So we get on with it.

Before the blood pressure starts to rise in Auld Reekie, Saturday sees an abbreviated SPL schedule.

Rangers, still actually a football club with fixtures to fulfil rather than just a business basketcase, travel to Tannadice.

It's a fortnight now since Hearts overcame a half time deficit to beat Rangers at Ibrox.

How will the squad have reacted since then? It's difficult to say. What we do know is that this was far from a vintage Rangers side before the off the pitch implosion. The financial collapse looks to have weakened them further.

That's why Dundee United's odds have been shortened and why many people will fancy them to enjoy back-to-back wins over Rangers for the first time in a decade.

The outcome will be pored over by those looking to gauge the extent of Rangers footballing decline and by those waiting to see if the champions will be beaten to second place by Motherwell.

If United can win and Motherwell can beat Aberdeen then Stuart McCall's team will be level with Rangers on points, although trailing by a massive goal difference discrepancy.

Strange times these, on and off the pitch. Chastened but defiant in their defeat to Celtic last week, I'd not be surprised to see a bullish United performance tomorrow.

Do Rangers have the spirit left to match them?

They certainly look they might struggle at the back. Dorin Goian, Carlos Bocanegra, Steven Whittaker, Kyle Bartley, Kirk Broadfoot and Sasa Papac are all missing. Finding a defence looks like being yet another headache for Ally McCoist.

For their part Motherwell couldn't beat Aberdeen in the cup last week as Mr Brown's boys continued their thrawn 2012 unbeaten record.

Christmas Eve was the last time Aberdeen tasted defeat. Last week they showed that they have some ruthlessness as well as a commendable obstinancy. This now is very much the team that Craig Brown built.

Second place within Motherwell's grasp and the top six not completely beyond Aberdeen. This could be another interesting game at Fir Park.

Finally today, all the saints go marching on Paisley as St Mirren host St Johnstone.

Seven of St Mirren's last eight games have been drawn. That makes St Johnstone's effort in drawing three of their last six look like a fairly pathetic attempt to steal the crown of league stalemate specialists.

It also suggests that the two sides fighting out a draw wouldn't surprise many people.

And so we move on to Sunday.

It's been so long ago since Hibs beat Hearts that I can't even remember who the victorious manager was that day.

No, no. I jest. It was me old mucker Mixu Paatelainen back in May 2009.

There's been little joy for Hibs in these games since then. There's been little joy for Hibs at all since then.

Ahead of this game I hear that Hearts are the more experienced derby team, that they're determined to complete a derby clean sweep this season (there might be another game if Hearts don't qualify for the top six), that they have played better when the players haven't been paid.

So the result should be a foregone conclusion.

It might well be. I don't predict such things anymore.

Hibs are improving and they have better players. They're certainly a very different proposition now: of the team that I expect Pat Fenlon to field only four starters from the New Year defeat at Easter Road will remain.

Do the new players understand the significance of the fixture? That question seems to make a supposition: that the old players did understand the significance of the game.

Fat lot of good it did them.

But these players will know. They don't live in complete isolation and there remains Hibs fans in and around the squad. I surmise that Fenlon - no stranger to local grudge matches in his career - has also come through a crash course in the history of Hibs.

Does any of that matter? It might be a completely unquantifiable variable, although it is one that offers succour to the fans.

Hibs mini revival has coincided with fluctuations in Hearts' form. That means the two sides actually have similar recent records despite a 16 point gap quite correctly illustrating their different fortunes across the season.

Hearts still look to me to have more match winners at their disposal. But that might make a victorious team effort all the sweeter for Hibs. It could be a close one.

Someone will win and gloat and dance and be merry and crack unfunny jokes about the losers who will in turn moan and cry and drink and then start singing again.

Unless it's a draw. Then Hearts will sing and dance and gloat about ten games undefeated and Hibs will sing and dance and think "at least the buggers didn't beat us."

And so, winners or losers, the circle of capital football life will continue.

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