Thursday, July 18, 2013

Getting back in the swing

The season's first competitive game for a Scottish side last night.

And a 3-0 win for Celtic in their Champion's League qualifier against Cliftonville, a fine start to their three round route to the Champion's League proper.

Tonight Hibs and St Johnstone face away games to Malmo and Rosenborg as they look to buck the SPL's recent travails in Europa League qualifying woes.

Motherwell join the fray in the next round of Europa qualifying - and the bookies suggest that both Hibs and St Johnstone will be upsetting the odds to join them.

The return of competitive football means that a new domestic season is dawning.

A new season under the auspices of the Scottish Professional Football League, the brave new organisational structure that doesn't seem to have quite got round to deciding on names for its various leagues.

If the new governance model has yet to convince that it offers anything other than more of the same, what does top flight football have in store for us?

After years of the SPL being a two-horse race, the loss of Rangers left Celtic to race to winners' enclosure alone.

The scored more goals, had a more miserly defence and won more games than the opposition to finish 16 points clear.

So far, so predictable. But Celtic actually dropped 14 more points than they had the season before, wholly dominant but never invincible.

Motherwell, finishing second for the second year in a row, finished on just one point more than they had the previous year.

In a Rangers free season the other clubs couldn't fill the gap, Motherwell's 63 points in second place mirroring the sort of total that previously carried a team to third (Aberdeen in 2006/07 were the last side outside Celtic or Rangers to top 63 points, finishing on 65 in third place.)

In 2011/12 31 points separated Motherwell in third and Hibs in 11th. Last season just 22 points separated Motherwell in second and St Mirren in 11th.

Celtic could afford more off days because everyone else was still beating everyone else, with less and less predictability.

An accumulator win on SPL results was a rare joy last season, a more hard fought challenge than becoming lady captain at Muirfield.

What of the season ahead? More of the same. Celtic the favourites by a massive distance, beneath them Motherwell, Aberdeen, Dundee United and Hibs are tipped in best of the rest race to second.

Always difficult to have much confidence in predictions at this juncture, of course.

The revolving door at most clubs makes each summer a period of rebuilding rather than consolidation.

Motherwell will be reworked, Aberdeen rebuilt by Derek McInnes, United setting out on Jackie McNamara's first full SPL season as manager and the departures of Leigh Griffiths and Eoin Doyle have seen Hibs shorn of almost two-thirds of their league goals tally.

Celtic will win the SPL, whether it's a romp or a canter is pretty much up to them.

Elsewhere we should again see a certain unpredictability, the challenge for those eleven clubs is to raise the standard of that unpredictability.