Monday, April 20, 2009

Doin' the SPLit

You. Out there on the right. Get out.

It has been a tough season to follow the SPL. One year after three Scottish clubs remained in Europe after Christmas (a record), and a half-decent domestic race, this season has been positively painful. Hibs gave an early hint of what Europe would look like for the Scottish clubs, falling 4-0 on aggregate to Elfsborg in the Intertoto Cup (RIP) way back in July. Rangers famously fell to Kaunas in the Champions League's Second Qualifying Round. Motherwell also fell at the first hurdle, losing to AS Nancy in the UEFA Cup (RIP). Celtic were the lone Scottish team to notch a win this European campaign, defeating an already-qualified Villareal squad on the last day of the Champions League group stage.

Domestically, the play has not been any more inspiring. As expected, Rangers and Celtic took early control of the first and second spots while everyone filtered to about where I expected. Currently, I put the breakdown of the SPL as two huge clubs, five medium clubs and five small clubs. The seven "big" clubs occupy the top seven spots in the league. That's the SPL in a nutshell this season. There has just been no spark, nothing to note and nothing to watch. If you liked Ligue 1 a couple of seasons ago (no goals, lots of draws), then this is the league for you.

Thankfully, the split is upon us (so I don't have to type it, an explanation is here). No longer do we really have to pay attention to half of the league. There are five more matchdays and then we get to regroup and pray for a better year next time. First, though, we have to survive those last five rounds. Inside, a quick breakdown of the season so far.

1 & 1A Celtic (74 points) and Rangers (73 points)
Here is how non-competitive the league as a whole has been. Neither one of these teams faces the threat of being pipped for second. Rangers are 19 points clear of third-placed Hearts with five games to play. The showdown for these two will be surprisingly early, May 9, in the second of five rounds. Both clubs traditionally ask to avoid playing each other on the last match day, and the SPL agrees. Rangers will host that last derby of the season, and then both clubs hope to not draw a game the rest of the way. Fun, huh?

Celtic should have salted the league away back around the new year, but seemed to get distracted by their large lead at the time and let points slip away. Rangers, of course, are still feeling the ill-effects of the antics of former captain Barry Ferguson and starting keeper Allan McGregor, but word is that gaffer Walter Smith now feels he was hasty in banning the two and will welcome them back to the fold. For a club that seriously needs money, an automatic spot in the group round of the Champions League is something to lose your morals over.

3 Heart of Midlothian (54 points)
I thought this team was done for. I thought that all of the drama that followed this club around would just do them in. It did last season, and this season was shaping up to be no better. Instead, this is a team that overachieved and paid no attention to the multiple times the players went without pay and didn't even flinch when their captain was sold in January. Hearts just kept, well, beating. The club is on a six game unbeaten run in league and could well have that run until the end of the season. Not bad for a club whose leading card-getter (seven yellows) outpaces its leading scorer (six goals). Almost a lock for a European slot, since they would have to drop at least six points to fall to fifth.

4 Dundee United (49 points)
Now this is a team that did not finish the pre-split slate well. United have only won two of their ten matches since the new year and have effectively ceded third place to Hearts. Of course, they had a pretty phenomenal run early in the year. After five matches, United were at the bottom of the table on two points. They took 20 of the next 24 points available to rocket up to third, a position that has been theirs most of the season. It's not too late to move back up, especially if Hearts lose both of their matches to the Old Firm. But they cannot wait until they face the Jambos on May 16 to do so, for that will be too late.

5 Aberdeen (48 points)
It has been a terribly up and down season for the Dons. Twice the club has occupied last place in the league, the last time coming in October with the culmination of a four game losing streak. Then came the steady climb. By mid-January, when Aberdeen stuffed Celtic 4-2 at home (yes, I'm biased), the club was up to third spot. Since then, fifth spot has been home. A home of incredibly frustrating draws. Aberdeen have drawn six of 11 games since that win over Celtic. The Dons do have the bonus of three home games in this five game sprint, but if they don't make Europe (with a top four finish) expect Jimmy Calderwood to be let go, or pushed under a bus by one of the many disgruntled fans in the north.

6 Hibernian (42 points)
Hibernian were gifted a sixth-place finish when Motherwell lost 2-0 at home on the next to last day. Suddenly, yesterday's match against Rangers no longer had any significance for the Easter Road outfit. Think of that when you look at Hibs' results from here on out. There is no way they are going to move up into Europe and will likely play out the string rather lifelessly.

7 Motherwell (41 points)
If not for two St Mirren goals in the last 15 minutes on Saturday (and maybe scoring one of their own), Motherwell would have been in the Top Six. Instead they are likely to pull 11 to 15 points at the end of the season and end up with a point total higher than Hibs, even if the Well cannot pass them in the standings. A slight consolation, I'm sure.

8 Kilmarnock
9 St Mirren
10 Hamilton (all 34 points)
Hamilton seem to have done just enough to survive, as all three of these clubs are six points clear of the bottom. However, the Academicals, as well as St Mirren, should be wary as their goal differential does leave them slightly open to danger.

11 Inverness CT (32 points)
12 Falkirk (28 points)
ICT looked to be in great danger at the end of January. Seemingly locked in last place, the club fired Craig Brewster as manager and eventually hired former bloody England star Terry Butcher. Since then the clubs has done just enough to distance themselves from last-placed Falkirk, a 4-0 March loss notwithstanding. Unfortunately for Falkirk, that's the last game the team scored in. It was also only their second win in league since mid-November, a streak of 15 matches. These two teams will meet on the last day of the season, but Inverness should be safe from relegation by then.


The Fan's Attic said...

Is there only one automatic CL qualifying spot for SPL?

ü75 said...

Two. Winner gets an automatic group stage spot. Second place gets a qualifying round spot--the stage where Rangers shit the bed last year, losing an estimated $20 million in the process.

cjdomer04 said...

Yea, one automatic and one in the new, much more difficult qualifying stages. As I see it, win the league or no CL next year.

The Fan's Attic said...

that's what i meant, an automatic to the group stage.

machine gooner funk said...

no mention of maurice edu settling in and emerging as a viable option as rangers' left winger?

ü75 said...

(Backpasses link)