Preview of this weekend’s action in Scotland as early leaders Motherwell travel to Kilmarnock while last seasons’ Champions Rangers will be hoping to bag their first three points of the season away to St Johnstone. Celtic and Dunferminline’s clash will be played on another date, as Neil Lennon’s men are in Ireland for the Dublin Super Cup.
Inverness Caledonian Thistle v Hibernian
When Hibs manager Colin Calderwood warned the supporters last Friday that his rebuilt squad was not yet strong enough to challenge for a European spot, he must have been aware that he was already in firm contention for understatement of the year. Even before a ball had been kicked in anger against Celtic on the opening day of the season, Calderwood was issuing a string of excuses and disclaimers,
‘We will need a real big improvement, we’ll need to grow, as I can’t see us starting the season in the type of form that will take us there.…I think the start is tough, but what I see is scope in the group….We will have to ride out one or two storms in the first half of the season.’
When a manager expresses this level of concern over his own squad’s ability before the first match of the season, you know something is wrong within a club. Having watched Hibernian against Celtic in that first match, I can confirm that things are indeed very wrong and likely to get a lot worse. There was a huge summer clear out of players from Easter Road with only three arrivals. The squad is threadbare, inexperienced and without any of the youngsters that came through on a conveyor belt of talent from the youth set-up in recent years.
Think about this, Hibs finished the match against Celtic with a 19 year-old, two 20 year-olds, and a 21 year-old as their defence. Hibs finished the last campaign 10th out of 12, Colin Calderwood would probably bite your hand off for that right now.
Things aren’t about to get easier any time soon for Hibs as they make the gruelling trek to face a battle scarred Inverness side that are better than their opening day result, a 3-0 defeat to Motherwell, suggests.
Caley are missing midfielder Lee Cox to a groin strain, but Terry Butcher is hopeful of having new signing Thomas Piermayr registered in time to face Hibernian.
Inverness finished in a creditable seventh position last term, some sixteen points ahead of Hibernian, and Butcher is looking to build on that this season,
‘We’ll have a go this year. We are looking to be better than we were last year, we’re looking to improve and build on the success that we’ve had for the last two years.’
Prediction: Home win.
Kilmarnock v Motherwell
This promises to be a real contest, two teams who will take a lot of confidence from both their finishing positions last term, and their results last weekend. Motherwell humbled Inverness while Kilmarnock took a point off a resurgent Dundee United side that almost clinched third spot last season.
Kilmarnock manager Kenny Shiels continues to rebuild the Ayrshire men, with Czech defender Zdenek Kroca becoming Killie’s fifth signing of the close season. Kroca will move into the role made available by Frazer Wright’s departure to St Johnstone, and he will join other summer signings, Patrick Ada, Gary Harkins, Daniel Racchi and Paul Heffernan in the squad to face Motherwell.
Stuart McCall takes the steelmen to Rugby Park, high in confidence after last weekend’s comprehensive victory over Inverness. The victory though has been overshadowed by continuous speculation over the future of young Jamie Murphy. McCall is understandably keen to hang on to his young prodigy, but increasing interest from both Celtic and a handful of English Premiership clubs makes that unlikely.
Striker Ross Forbes returns from a ban he picked up in pre season but may have to settle for a place on the bench as Motherwell look to capitalise on Celtic’s commitments in Dublin, by extending their lead at the top of the SPL.
St Johnstone v Rangers
The lunchtime kick-off sees a nervous Rangers side travel to McDairmid Park, where anything less than three points will have Ally McCoist concerned for his position and his health. Rangers only managed a draw on the opening day of the season and followed that up with a 0-1 defeat at home to Malmo in a Champions League qualifier. Such is the necessity for winning matches in Glasgow that Rangers, and Ally McCoist, are one game away from a catastrophe. Should the unthinkable happen against St Johnstone, the ancient Ibrox walls will start to close in on McCoist.
St Johnstone boss Derek McInnes will have been pleased with the point that his team picked up at Pittodrie last weekend, and will definitely have a go against a vulnerable Rangers side that, at the moment, are not playing like champions.
The Perth men have captured the signature of former Dundee United and Valencia striker Francisco Sandaza, and have shunned an offer from Rangers for Murray Davidson, McInnes describing the amount offered by Rangers as, ‘ridiculous’.
A lack of goals was Saints main problem last year and the tell-tale signs were still in evidence against Aberdeen last week. McInnes will be hoping that Sandaza can hit the ground running.
Prediction: Away Win
St Mirren v Aberdeen
Aberdeen had problems in every area of their team last season, poor defence, goal-shy strikers and a midfield lacking in creativity. The loss of Chris Maguire, Paul Hartley, Zander Diamond and Derek Young has done nothing to reassure Dons fans that the wind of change will be blowing through draughty Pittodrie any time soon.
Ten man Dons dominated against St Johnstone in last week’s opener but it was a familiar ending as they failed to find the back of the net. Craig Brown, however, was optimistic about what he witnessed, and seemed pleased with the contribution of his summer signings,
‘(Youl) Mawene played well and so did (Isaac) Osbourne and the fans saw the presence of (Kari) Arnason coming in to midfield, who looks to be a class act.’
St Mirren manager Danny Lennon was disappointed with his sides point away to Dunfermline, but was buoyed by what he described as, ‘quality football’, from his players. Striker Steven Thompson missed from the spot but Saints had the lion’s share of possession in the midfield.
Lennon has made some fine additions in the transfer window, bringing in Paul McGowan and Graham Carey from Celtic, Thompson from Burnley, Nigel Hasselbaink form Hamilton Accies, and Scotland winger Gary Teale from Sheffield Wednesday. Lennon is hoping to improve upon their 11th place finish last term, and with one of the stronger squads in the SPL, this looks likely.
Prediction: Home Win.
Hearts v Dundee United
Sunday’s match sees last seasons runners up to Rangers and Celtic, Hearts, take on Dundee United, who finished just behind the Edinburgh club in fourth place.
Hearts face a tiring trip to Hungry on Thursday evening to take on Paksi in the Europa League, third qualifying round first leg, and they will fancy their chances against the Hungarian minnows after a sterling performance against Rangers at Ibrox last weekend.
The concern for Jim Jeffries on Sunday will be fatigue. Although the Tynecastle outfit have a decent squad, injuries to Andrew Driver, Kevin Kyle, Calum Elliot and summer signing Jamie Hamill leaves Jeffries with a headache over team selection.
Dundee United go into the match with the future of troubled striker David Goodwillie still in doubt. United have admitted that if their £2m valuation of the player is met, he will be allowed to leave Tannadice. Goodwillie, who has twice been fined for his part in nightclub assaults, had the serious charge of rape dropped by the Scottish Crown Prosecution earlier this week due to insufficient evidence. This has sparked renewed interest in the player, with £1.6m bids from both Rangers and Blackpool being rejected.
Peter Houston’s men showed their resilience last week when they earned a point against Kilmarnock, just three days after a draining 3-2 win over Slask Wroclaw in a Europa League qualifier. Hearts trip to Hungry could provide the edge that Dundee United are looking for.
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