The business end of the season is fast approaching with the top and bottom 6 split just a couple of games away. At the top end of end of the table Celtic and Aberdeen are battling out in the most closely contested title race in years, one in which at several times neither team has looked overly convinced that they want to win; both doing their best to hand advantage to the other and quickly seeing the favour reciprocated.
At the other end of the table Dundee United are eating up the ground on Kilmarnock as they look to avoid the one automatic relegation spot. Elsewhere in the league, the clubs occupying 4th to 9th are all still competing to end the first stage of the season in the top half and can all theoretically exchange positions before the opening 33 games are out.
Hearts, in third, are pretty much guaranteed to finish in the same position, while Hamilton, currently 10th, will be looking to accumulate enough points to cement their current standing and, at best, challenge for ninth. Otherwise, the clubs occupying 4th to 9th still have something tangible to play for.
RACE FOR THE TITLE
While Hearts are not mathematically out of the title race – should they win all their remaining matches and both Celtic and Aberdeen capitulate, then the Tynecastle club could still theoretically win the league – realistically it is only Celtic and Aberdeen who have a chance of winning the title.
Celtic, overwhelming pre-season favourites, are in the driving seat holding a four point advantage with a game in hand, and a vastly superior goal difference. Having suffered a blip in form, successive draws against Dundee and Hamilton, Celtic have returned to winning ways in each of their past three games. Aberdeen on the other hand have won four of their last five games, losing once away to Motherwell on the same weekend as Celtic sealed a hugely significant last minute victory at Rugby Park thanks to a Tom Rogic wonder goal. The weekend of the 19th March may just prove to be one of the most significant of the 2015/16 season.
Looking at the recent form of the title challengers, it is Aberdeen who, despite the loss at Motherwell, are the form side of the two. Over the past five games the Dons have averaged 2.4 points per game – up on their average of 2.13 for the season – compared to Celtic’s 2.2 points per game – down on their average of 2.32 over the season. The Dons have also out gunned the Hoops over the past five games, scoring 0.4 goals per game more; however, Celtic have scored 0.7 goals per game more over the course of the season to date. Defensively, Aberdeen have improved significantly in their past five games conceding just 4 goals, an average of 0.8 per game compared to the season average of 1.06. Celtic however, despite the constant negativity that seems to surround their much maligned defence, continue to have the most stubborn defence in the league conceding just three goals in the last five games and an average of 0.77 goals per game over the season. With goals not always in plentiful supply of late, it has been Celtic’s embattled defence on which the foundations of the ongoing title defence have been built.
Despite Aberdeen currently out scoring Celtic in average goals and points per game over the past five matches, Celtic still remain on course to lift a fifth successive title. Should both teams continue their current form through to the season’s end the Hoops would amass a total of 87 points, 5 more than Aberdeen. Victory on Tuesday night away to Dundee, who won a point away at Parkhead just five games ago, would see Celtic open up a 7 point lead at the summit and move one step closer to retaining the title. However, victory is by no means a fore gone conclusion as the Dens Park club have lost only once in their last five games.
BATTLE TO AVOID THE DROP
At the other end of the table the battle to avoid finishing in last place and taking the one automatic relegation spot is realistically between two teams, Kilmarnock and Dundee United, as it has been for most of the season. Hamilton and possibly Inverness are not quite safe from being dragged in to a fight to avoid the play-off position; however, despite having lost four of their five games, the Highland Jags should be relatively comfortable come the end of the season.
Seemingly out of contention to remain in the league at the turn of the year, Mixu Paatelainen has overseen an upturn in form at Tannadice that currently has the Tangerines on a run of form more suited to a top six side than one at the bottom of the table. United are currently averaging a more than respectable return of 1.4 points per game, in contrast, Kilmarnock’s form over the past five games has seen them pick up just one point – the lowest tally in the league. Kilmarnock’s recent form is the epitome of relegation form, and it must be worrying times for all at Rugby Park.
In addition, Kilmarnock are also the league’s lowest goal scorers over the last five games, only mustering one solitary goal; and even that came in a defeat to Aberdeen. On the plus side, if one can be taken from their recent form, Kilmarnock’s defence has tightened up in recent weeks since the arrival of Lee Clark as manager, conceding only six goals in the last five games. If Killie can find a goal scorer amongst their ranks in the next few weeks then he could very well be worth his weight in gold.
However, even that may not be enough to halt Kilmarnock’s slide should Dundee United maintain their current good form. Over the last five games United have scored 0.63 more points per game, scored 0.34 more goals per game, and conceded 0.77 less goals per game as compared to their season averages. In short, Dundee United has hit form at just the right time. Given that their last five games will be against fellow bottom sixers – including Kilmarnock – with confidence high at Tannadice, it is not out with the realms of possibility that United could over take their Ayrshire rivals and move out of the automatic relegation spot.
Should both sides continue with their current form until the end of the season, then that is exactly what will happen, with United finishing four points ahead of Kilmarnock. Killie need a goal scorer fast if they are to arrest their slump, or even stand a chance in the play-off.
MOTHERWELL THE TEAM TO BEAT
As for the rest of the league, Motherwell is the surprise team of the moment – at least, this has come as a surprise to me. The Fir Parkers have won each of their last five games, scoring 10 and conceding 5 in the process. As a result they currently have best average points and goals scored per game in the league over the last five matches. Furthermore, only Celtic has conceded fewer goals in the same period. Forget Celtic and Aberdeen, it is Motherwell who are showing title winning form and are the team to beat. What a time to be alive for Motherwell fans.
Elsewhere, Dundee thumped Ross County at the weekend to leapfrog their opponents on goal difference, and with a game in hand. At the same time, the 5-2 thrashing helped to heap more pressure on the Ross County defence, the most porous in the league having conceded 55 goals already this season (Dundee United have also conceded 55 goals but have played one game more thus giving them a slightly better average goals conceded per game ratio); County have conceded 2.4 goals per game over the last 5 matches, the worst in the league.
However, the current form of the sides placed 6th to 10th is so similar that should they all continue with their current form until the season’s end that no one will change place. None of the teams are outperforming those above or below them, and none are vastly worse than their close rivals; it’s all much of a muchness. Therefore, to push for a top six spot, the likes of Partick Thistle, Ross County, and Inverness Caley Thistle will all need to up their game and go for goals in order to break their current winless habits. All three of the above have scored less than a goal a game in the last five matches and, like Kilmarnock, will need to find a goal scorer in the next couple of games if they are push Dundee for a top six finish.
The beautiful thing about football is that come the final whistle at the end of next weekend’s matches this story will have changed again. The destination of the title may be clearer or witness another twist, likewise with the battle to avoid the drop.
The problem with making predictions and assertions based on the form of the last five matches is that the next result could change the whole dynamic. Suddenly a defeat turns a previously good return of points per game into a not so good one, and vice-versa with a win. As the saying goes, form is temporary, class is permanent.