Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The 07/08 Scottish Premier League: A quick review with a hint of preview.

Surprising no one, the Old Firm squads take the top two positions at the turn of the year. Celtic hold a slight advantage on Rangers today, but that could easily evaporate quickly as Rangers hold two games in hand—against the bottom two squads in the league. Still, I favor Celtic for the title based on the fact that Rangers will run into some serious schedule congestion. They will have at least three matches to make up by the time the SPL splits for its final five matches (an idea so convoluted I will leave it for another time). Because of these rescheduled matches and possible European fixtures, Rangers could face double the matches that Celtic does in March, leaving them spent after the split.

The real story of the Scottish season so far is that three teams are still in European competition past Christmas. Celtic had their famous win against AC Milan at Parkhead propel them into the knockout rounds of the Champions League, where they will lose to Barcelona. Rangers surprised some by qualifying for the group stages in the Champions League, and probably surprised some more by finishing third in their group. While that doesn’t get you a date in the knockout stages in that competition, it does qualify you for the UEFA Cup. Rangers have a home and home with Panathanaikos of Greece, who ran over Aberdeen 3-0 in group play. Aberdeen left it late to get through in the UEFA Cup, needing a last day victory to get through. The first half was a tense scoreless affair, but Aberdeen produced four second half goals to win over FC Copenhagen and advance to a tie against giants Bayern Munich. In the league, though, the Dons have not been so great. A slow start has given way to up and down form, leaving them 5th in the table.

Last week, this part of the article would have been about the surprising play of Motherwell and lauding their 3rd place standing. That, of course, changes with the death of captain Phil O’Donnell. I conceive of no way that they will be able to maintain their pre-holiday form when dealing with such a tragedy. They will, emotionally, be everyone’s second-choice-support team, if not first, but will probably struggle to pull off a top six place before the split.

Now to address the split. The SPL season goes through three rounds of play—each team gets 33 matches. After the three rounds, the top six squads go into what is effectively a championship round robin, while the bottom six do the same for relegation. A team with a top six slot at the split cannot be surpassed in the table by a bottom six team. This leads to interesting final season tables where the 7th place squad often has more points than the 6th place finisher.

I get into all of this because currently the 4th through 8th teams are only separated by a point. Dundee United, Aberdeen, Hibernian, Falkirk and Inverness Caledonian Thistle all reside here. Past form, as well as squad size and ambition, would seem to tip Falkirk and ICT to falter, but with everyone so close, this will be the secondary race to watch.

Kilmarnock—They’re 9th, who cares?

Hearts—that Lithuanian revolution is never going to pay off, is it? They sit 10th and are on horrible form, having pulled one point out of their last six matches. They and St. Mirren, sitting in 11th, must be thankful that there is only one relegation spot.

That spot is undoubtedly going to Gretna. After 3 successive promotions, this team has petered out. Because of Premier League restrictions on ground size, they’ve had to play home matches 75 miles away. In addition, they started the season with a coaching controversy. Depending on who you believe, they hired a new manager while failing to inform the old manager that he had been relieved. He, of course, knew about the new guy, but still tried to get into the ground and coach the lads at the first game. He was strong armed out of the park. They also sold off some veterans and failed to sign adequate replacements in the off season. It’s sad, really. I thought this squad would have the backing and gumption to go top six, but instead will be officially relegated before the April split.

In other divisions, Dundee and Hamilton Academicals are fighting for the lone promotion spot to the Premier League, five squads have a chance to make it out of the Second Division (one automatic and one playoff), while East Fife (yay!) have a virtual lock on the Third Division crown. Also, East Stirlingshire may not finish last this season, and that would be one hell of an achievement for them.

1 comment:

Lingering Bursitis said...

This was excellent. I want more of this, please.