The Scottish Premiership is set to resume this week and Sky Sports pundits Kris Boyd and Andy Walker have been analysing how a thrilling title race and exciting relegation battle could unfold.
There was no shortage of drama in the first five months of the Scottish Premiership season with Rangers and Celtic engaging in the closest title battle for years at the top of the table.
- Scottish Premiership break: What did your club do?
- Scottish Cup: Celtic draw Clyde, Rangers face Hamilton
The teams are separated by just two points at the top although Rangers have a game in hand over leaders Celtic thanks to their dramatic win at Parkhead in the final round of fixtures before the winter shutdown. Rangers host St Mirren, while Celtic travel to Kilmarnock, live on Sky Sports, this midweek.
Aberdeen and Motherwell meet on Wednesday as league action gets back underway and that Pittodrie encounter could be vital as both sides chase a spot in Europe next season.
Hearts would not have been many people’s picks to be relegated at the start of the season but they ended the year five points adrift at the foot of the table with new boss Daniel Stendel set to continue to ring the changes at Tynecastle throughout the January transfer window.
Will warm-weather training in Dubai have helped Celtic re-group after defeat in the Old Firm derby? Will Rangers’ run of fixtures help Steven Gerrard’s side in their pursuit of the title? Will Sam Cosgrove stay at Aberdeen and could Hearts actually be relegated?
They both believe that “only a fool” would predict the outcome of the title race but Kris Boyd and Andy Walker have been thinking on all these questions and more below…
The winter break
Kris Boyd: “Both Celtic and Rangers needed the break – they have both played a lot of games in terms of European football and the league is neck and neck. It probably came at a good time for both. Celtic will be desperate to get back at it having lost their last game.
“At the same time this is where Rangers fell down last season so it is really important that Rangers come back strongly and you would think, with their next game being at home, everybody will be at it on Wednesday because you don’t want history repeating itself.”
Andy Walker: “I think what you see in the winter break is giving teams a chance to re-group and giving teams, especially like Rangers and Celtic, a chance for a bit of respite because they have been hard at it almost from June.
“They have played so many games, obviously the Europa League, qualifiers and fixtures themselves – Sunday-midweek, Sunday-midweek up until January. We are so close in the title race and it does have echoes in what happened last season – we saw Celtic just go into a different gear and Rangers just fell by the wayside.
“I’m not anticipating that happening this time around. I think there is a different mentality in this team put together by Steven Gerrard but I am also expecting Celtic to have the knowledge of what it takes to win a title – you have got to remember that they have won the last eight.”
The next batch of fixtures for the Old Firm
Boyd: “Both are in a far better place, both are stronger than last season and the table shows that in terms of the points. There are a few tricky games in there and if you were to ask everybody connected with both teams they would rather have home games, but over the course and distance of the season it evens itself out.
“Rangers will have a few tougher away games towards the latter part of this block of fixtures before the split so it is really, really important that you get the points on the board. Kilmarnock was the same place Rangers slipped up last season – I don’t think it will happen again this time with Celtic but you just never know. It is a difficult place to go and Kilmarnock need to get some points on the board.”
Walker: “I think all the games now are difficult – you are seeing Celtic and Rangers pushing each other on and obviously one might play earlier than the other and so much will depend on the following day’s result. The opportunity to claw it back, the pressure that brings or the opportunity to go further ahead because your rivals have dropped points.
“They haven’t really dropped that many points. Rangers have drawn at Aberdeen and Hearts, lost to Celtic, Celtic had that bizarre loss to Livingston. Things like that can happen but I think they will be few and far between now and the end of the season.
“You’ve got your Scottish Cup, the Europa League coming in next month and I think that will be important because I am sure that if any side gets through they will be wanting the other side to get through just so they play the same amount of games and they are under the same amount of pressure. The biggest prize in this season of all seasons is Celtic trying to get nine-in-a-row and Rangers obviously trying to stop it.”
‘Rangers are the real deal’
Walker: “I can see Celtic being really strong and picking up six, seven or eight wins on the bounce on the back of the winter break but, equally, I can see Rangers doing that too. I think what the 29th at Parkhead told us was that Rangers are the real deal. They won last season in a similar fixture but that game was at Ibrox, I think it is a huge statement for Rangers to be able to go to Parkhead and win there. That tells you a lot because Celtic’s home record has been absolutely outstanding.”
Boyd: “If you take the last game in isolation there is no doubt that Rangers were the better team. Rangers looked fitter and stronger but you could say the same thing towards the end of 2018 and Celtic came back and were a lot stronger.
“With Rangers’ game in hand, they have to believe they can pick up more points than Celtic between now and the end of the season and Wednesday gives them a good opportunity to start. It will be a tough game but these are the matches in which you need to pick up three points if you are to become league champions.
“Rangers had a couple of tricky away games when they came back last year. Yes, they have to go to Hearts at the weekend but I think when you look at the big picture, in terms of the next chunk of fixtures, Rangers need to get maximum points home and away.
“For me, it is going to go all the way to the end of the season and, from Scottish football’s point of view, this is brilliant. Two giants in world football are going neck and neck again and that’s what makes Rangers and Celtic what they are. For me, it will go all the way until the middle of May.”
Aberdeen and Motherwell in a race for Europe?
Boyd: “I do fancy Aberdeen to come back strong in the second half of the season. Derek McInnes got a little bit of criticism at the start of the season – for me, wrongly. His team had a lot of injuries to key players and summer signings. They have brought in Dylan McGeouch who can be a good addition for Aberdeen if he can find his form again. Motherwell have been outstanding so far. It has the makings of a really good game at Pittodrie on Wednesday.
“If Sam Cosgrove continues to show the form he has shown in the first half of the season he can be the difference. He has scored 41 goals in his last 60 games – the stats are outrageous – but he has contributed a lot to the team as well.”
Walker: “I think Aberdeen are favourites to edge it over Motherwell. I wouldn’t rule Motherwell out, of course, but I think Aberdeen have the experience of being up there, winning games on a consistent basis – that will stand them in good stead. And, of course, strengthening with Dylan McGeouch.
“I think the only concern for Aberdeen is getting to the end of the window and they’ve still got Sam Cosgrove because he will attract a bit of attention from some clubs with a lot of money in England. Look at what happened at Fir Park earlier this season when Motherwell maybe thought they were favourites to beat Aberdeen, who were on a bit of a downer at the time, and it was a big game. Aberdeen recognised it and Cosgrove was key to them getting a comfortable win at Fir Park.”
Relegation – could Hearts really go down?
Boyd: “For me, Hearts are in big trouble being five points adrift of Hamilton. Everybody says they are too big to go down – they are not too big to go down, there have been bigger clubs than Hearts in world football who have been relegated. It does happen.
“There were people in there that have a lot to answer for and fair play to Daniel Stendel for clearing the decks. It takes a lot to just come in and bin your captain. He must have a clear plan of what he wants to do but he is going to be judged on results and he has not had a great start. Hearts need to get a lot of players out before they can bring players in but it is not as easy as that, especially in January. But when you have the likes of John Souttar, Steven Naismith and Conor Washington all coming back from injury you would expect them to pick up points.
“They have big crowds at Tynecastle but when things are not going right that can go against you. It is important for Hearts that everybody sticks together, the fans get behind the players and manager and try to turn this around because, from a Scottish football point of view, you don’t want Hearts out of this league again. You want all your big teams up there and making it a great spectacle for Scottish football.
“The teams that are there like St Mirren, St Johnstone and Hamilton – they are used to the battle so it is tough for Hearts but it is important that everybody at the club, from the fans down, sticks together because that is the only way they are going to get out of it.”
Walker: “I can’t see Hearts going down but I think it has been pretty dramatic the way Daniel Stendel has gone about his business. He is entitled to make whatever changes he sees fit and, even though that means the likes of Christophe Berra and others have fallen by the wayside, I think that’s the way it has to be at Tynecastle. They need to recognise that they could go down which would be a disaster for the club.