Race for third heats up in Scottish Premiership

With every passing game in this season’s Scottish Premiership the gulf between the country’s two biggest clubs and the rest becomes increasingly apparent. Celtic and Rangers are performing tremendously well both domestically and on the continent, and look set to be locked in their fiercest title battle since Rangers’ return to the top flight.

Outside of Glasgow, teams have struggled to find real consistency. This leaves the race for a third-place finish, as well as guaranteed European football next term, wide open for Premiership clubs to contest before the season’s conclusion. Which teams look best suited to finishing as best of the rest, and what can they do to get there? Sean McGill looks further.

Aberdeen

Current Position: 3rd

Aberdeen’s start to the season has been a real mixed bag. In some games, like their 3-0 win over Motherwell at Fir Park last month, they have looked just as you would expect under Derek McInnes’ tenure; strong, industrious and clinical. In others, most notably their 4-0 drubbing at the hands of Celtic, they have looked woefully inept.

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Cosgrove has been Aberdeen’s leading player this season

Sam Cosgrove remains just as talismanic for the Dons as he was last season, with 17 goals in 21 appearances in all competitions so far this term. Often characterised as one-dimensional, Cosgrove has morphed into the complete striker this campaign, exemplified by his stunning chop and long-range finish against St. Johnstone on Sunday.

The Englishman’s goalscoring exploits become even more impressive when you consider the lack of creativity present in Aberdeen’s midfield. Although injuries and suspensions have hampered McInnes’ ability to field a settled midfield unit, the manager will be hoping to see more ingenuity from the likes of Craig Bryson and Lewis Ferguson as the season rolls on.

 

Motherwell

Current Position: 4th

After years of failing to burst into the top half on the table, Motherwell look nailed on to end up as a top six team come the end of the season. Since the arrival of Stephen Robinson in early 2017, the Steelman have been on a steady incline, so much so that the Northern Irishman has been touted to take over from Michael O’Neill as manager of his national team.

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The Steelmen let Hibernian back into the race with defeat in Leith last weekend (Credit: Motherwell FC)

It was a flawless start in the Betfred Cup group stage, where Motherwell dispatched of their lower league opposition with authority. The same sort of consistency in the league has been hard to replicate so far, despite displaying an impressive swashbuckling style of play in the early weeks of the season. Motherwell have often gone on strong runs of form in the league under Robinson, only to unravel and find themselves sliding back down the table.

With David Turnbull still to return from injury, and the success stories of Declan Gallagher and Lucas Donnelly, Motherwell fans have plenty to smile about. However, a cloud of apprehension might just hang over them until Robinson’s Fir Park future becomes secure.

 

Kilmarnock

Current Position: 5th

Last season’s best of the rest, people began to worry about Kilmarnock from the moment it was confirmed that Steve Clarke would take up the role of Scotland’s head coach. These concerns only intensified as new man Angelo Alessio oversaw an embarrassing Europa League exit against Welsh part timers Connah’s Quay Nomads.

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Killie haven’t been firing upfront but have kept things tight at the back (Credit: Callan Media)

As the weeks have gone by, the former Chelsea and Juventus assistant has quietly been proving his doubters wrong. The defensive solidity that characterised Clarke’s side has been maintained under the Italian – only Celtic and Rangers have conceded fewer goals than Kilmarnock this league campaign. His new signings are beginning to flourish as well, Mohammed El Makrini and Dario Del Fabro have quickly become firm favourites with the Rugby Park faithful.

Prior to their Chris Burke-inspired 3-0 rout of Hearts on Saturday, it was Kilmarnock’s lack of goalscoring prowess that had been letting them down. Only St. Johnstone and St. Mirren have scored fewer goals than Killie in the league this term, something Alessio will have to rectify if he has serious aspirations of emulating his predecessor’s achievements in Ayrshire.

 

Hibernian

Current Position: 6th

There may only be two games’ worth of evidence, but Hibs have looked rejuvenated since the departure of Paul Heckingbottom. The Hibees have won three in three, but it’s not just the results that will please new gaffer Jack Ross, but the manner in which they have come about.

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Ross has had an instant impact in Edinburgh (Credit: SNS Group)

At McDiarmid Park, their pricey frontman Christian Doidge finally came alive, netting a hattrick in less than an hour. In Ross’ first game at the helm on Saturday, Hibs showed grit and determination in coming from behind to beat Motherwell 3-1, displaying the sort of character that fans had been crying out while watching their team draw half of their previous 12 league games.

Having watched his team score nine goals in three games, Ross will be keen to improve a defence that has failed to keep a clean sheet since the opening day of the season. Despite Melker Hallberg’s improvement in recent weeks, Hibs have looked a soft touch in midfield so far this campaign, something that the former Sunderland manager will be keen to fix as quickly as possible. Hibs welcome Kilmarnock to Easter Road this weekend, a fine opportunity for their new manager and his side to gain some more ground on those above them.

Come the end of the season, it is seemingly impossible that the champions of Scotland will be anyone other than Celtic or Rangers. Outside of Glasgow however, there is still plenty to fight for. This Premiership campaign promises twists and turns throughout, as these teams hope to prevail in the battle for European football, and the right to be this season’s best of the rest.

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