Friday, August 8, 2008

SPL season preview

The SPL kicks off this weekend, one week before England launch their top league. Inside, we'll take a quick look at the ins and outs of all the SPL squads, and make rudimentary, and probably laughable, guesses of where the teams will finish.

Also, I will wax rhapsodically about Aberdeen and their chances this season. It's what I do, deal with it.

As the BBC so helpfully points out, no team other than Rangers or Celtic have won the league title in 23 years. That's not likely to change this time around. The so-called New Firm teams, Aberdeen and Dundee United, would seem to have the best shot at pulling any surprise, but don't count on it. You can get odds of 200 to 1 for Aberdeen and 250 to 1 for Dundee United. Those are both wasted bets. 500 to 1 for either, I would take. Unfortunately for those who follow Kevin Malone's advice for life, there are no 10,000 to 1 shots out there.

Aberdeen
Aberdeen are a team of two minds this offseason. The Dons unloaded a full XI of talent (if one were to play a 6-2-3), but also brought in five new players to fill in the emptying spots. Since Jimmy Calderwood has been in charge, Aberdeen have been frustratingly consistent. Consistent that there will be an inexplicable slump somewhere in between October and March that will force the fans to reassess their expectations for the team's finish.

Last season, Aberdeen had that slump from the time they qualified for the knockout rounds of the UEFA Cup until they needed to scrape together a couple of results in a row to make the Top 6 split. The season was capped nicely for Dons fans by getting a win against Rangers to knock the hated Huns out of any chance of winning the league title. Expect a similar campaign this year with a thinner, but more finely tuned, squad.
Prediction: 4th

Celtic

Celtic didn't fuss much with the squad that won their third consecutive SPL title last season. The big addition is Giorgios Samaras from Manchester City. Their losses of personnel are minimal as well, though Bigus will have a keen interest in one of their loan-aways, John Kennedy, who will ply his trade in Norwich next season.

Wee Gordon Strachan has a magic touch with the Hoops. In three seasons at the helm, he has delivered three SPL titles. Celtic tend to start slowly in the league, then win everything at the end of the season. I think this season will mimic the '06-'07 campaign when Celtic won the league by 13 points. The biggest obstacle may be team chemistry, as there are a lot of players rumored to want out.
Prediction: 1st

Dundee United

United may rue the loss of Mark Kerr to Aberdeen, but many pundits who know better than I seem to think that the Tangerines offseason signings will more than make up for their admittedly large losses. Look for Craig Levein to keep up his club's impressive home defensive form, while trying to improve on their woeful overall away form. They should do so, and, given some luck, could pluck away second spot from Rangers.
Prediction: 3rd

Falkirk

Falkirk were the busy bees on the offseason signing front, apparently offering contracts to anyone who seemed likely to sign. The net result is a team that could finally break into the top 6 of the SPL. This is a team on the rise, and is problably the only "smaller" team in the top flight that seems to be in good financial standing. They will approach the 33 game mark firmly on the bubble to make the Top 6, and I think this is the year they do so.
Prediction: 6th

Hamilton Academical

All the chatter I have seen seems to place Hamilton at the foot of the table. In a way, they seem to look a little like Gretna from last season. They are a team good enough to make the SPL, but not good enough to stay there. Unlike Gretna, this is a young team that got to the SPL. If the youngsters are still developing, they could pull off some late season surprises. Unfortunately, it may not be enough to get out of a presumed early season hole. Signings have been minimal and cosmetic, at best.
Prediction: 12th

Heart of Midlothian

Hearts have been a club full of promise since Lithuanian Vladimir Romanov took over in 2005. While Hearts supporters may have hoped this super-rich Eastern European businessman would do wonders for their club, it hasn't panned out. Quite frankly, owning Hearts seems to be a business deal only, and as long as the investment is safe, there is no need to do anything further.

In the offseason, Hearts offloaded a fair amount of players while bringing in only one player of note. Let's face it, Romanov does not care about the feelings of the Hearts' faithful, and the club's results will continue to mirror this. As a coupled aside, Hearts could also be on the receiving end of some extra ire from Rangers this year, as Romanov also owns the club, FBK Kaunas, that knocked the Blues out of Europe.
Prediction: 9th

Hibernian

Hibernian went out of Europe even quicker than Rangers, losing 4-0 over two legs to Swedish club Elfsborg in the Intertoto Cup. The Intertoto Cup is a bit hard on Scottish clubs, as they are placed in a region with Scandinavian clubs who are in mid-season while the Scots are out of season. So, don't read too much into Hibs looking awful last month.

Hibernian kept their core squad intact in the offseason, and should be a lock for a Top 6 showing. They do give the impression, at times, of a team falling apart at the seams. Mix in the fact that Mixu Paatelainen is not the most technically nuanced manager out there, and I foresee a little struggle for the top half finish, perhaps even being pipped by Falkirk for fifth.
Prediction: 5th

Inverness Caledonian Thistle

Inverness' manager Craig Brewster pulled a few miracles out of the hat last season, and will need a few more this season to stay out of relegation troubles. This is consistently a thin squad to which Brewster will wish he could insert a slightly younger version of himself into, because goals will be hard to come by. They will likely escape the drop, but it won't be by much.
Prediction: 11th

Kilmarnock

As anyone who read my SPL updates last season will know, I'm not too big on Kilmarnock in any fashion. An 11th place finish last season only helped fuel this distaste for the club further. Things should be a good bit more rosy this time around for Killie, as they strengthened their team in the offseason. This will be a team that puts together solid runs coupled with some surprising wins through the year, a la ICT last season. It won't be enough to get into the Top 6, though.
Prediction: 7th

Motherwell

It has to happen, doesn't it? Not to keep dredging up the sad days, but at some point this team has to be affected negatively by the passing of Phil O'Donnell last December. A spirited finish to last season sees Motherwell going to Europe this year, but I think that the team will suffer domestically for their European adventure.

The team remains largely unchanged from last season, and that should be a positive. They will, however, have to maintain their focus at all times. If something starts to go wrong, it could all fall apart very quickly for a team where nearly everyone still has a heavy heart. I see them just missing the Top 6 cutoff, and sliding down over the last five matches into their final placement.
Prediction: 8th

Rangers

Well, the shine is off this club, isn't it? Losing at the first hurdle of the Champions League with the very same tactics that took them to last season's UEFA Cup final sees Rangers without any further European dates to worry about. There are already grumblings out there about the status of Walter Smith's job as well as fans unsure of Smith's big offseason signing, Kenny Miller.

The problem with missing out on Europe is that Rangers are said to be losing $25 million from not making the group stages. That could turn the club into a major seller in January, especially if Celtic waltz away from them early. Second is likely for this club, if they keep their personnel. However, if they engage in a fire sale, Dundee United could overtake them.
Prediction: 2nd

St. Mirren

Finally, it's the end. The Saints are a tough one to figure out. They have been very active in both buying and selling in the offseason, looking to improve on the 10th place finish from last time. Don's count on it. It looks like they have been selling young and buying old. Maybe it is for a one or two season push up the ladder, but such wholesale changes will take time to gel, if they do so at all. The Buddies will frustratingly mimic last season's finish in the end
Prediction: 10th

1 comment:

ü75 said...

A wildly successful opening weekend for my picks.

/sarcasm alert