AS the cold snap begins to bite in the Scottish climbs, it can only mean the gruelling festive schedule which can often be the defining period of a season is almost in full swing.
This weekend, all 12 Scottish Premiership teams are in action – 10 of them on Saturday at 3pm – as the top-six battle intensifies and the need for the bottom six to collect points becomes greater.
In the Championship, Hearts continue to set the pace at the summit with fellow promotion favourites Rangers and Hibernian struggling to keep up.
All teams are embarking on their 16th league game of what has been a largely unpredictable campaign thus far with plenty of twists and turns.
It promises to be another explosive weekend of action and here are my predictions:
Friday 12 December:
Queen of the South v Rangers (Palmerston Park)
KO 7:45pm – Live on BT Sport
The under-fire Ally McCoist has come under even greater scrutiny in recent weeks as the nine-point gap between themselves and Hearts continues to be maintained. The Rangers manager knows this festive period will be incredibly important in the context of the title race in the second-tier. Maximum points is a must for the Gers, who need to take care of their own business and have the chance to eat into the deficit in the first fixture of the weekend before the Jambos take to the field. It would give the players another injection of confidence and then put the pressure back on Hearts. But James Fowler’s Queens side are going well in third place and their only two defeats in their last nine games came against the league leaders. It will be a tough game for the hosts and Rangers would be favourites to take the spoils but it will be tight.
Prediction: Queen of the South 1-2 Rangers
Saturday 13 December:
Dundee United v Aberdeen (Tannadice)
The New Firm derby has an added dimension nowadays as these two sides are widely regarded as the ones with the biggest chance of challenging Celtic’s domestic dominance. Aberdeen lost the last meeting 3-0 on the opening weekend but won on their last trip to Tannadice in May. The Tangerines have won their last five home games and came out on top in a topsy-turvy encounter at bottom-club Ross County last weekend. United boss Jackie McNamara reckons it will be difficult for his team and Aberdeen to stop Celtic from winning the Scottish Premiership title but if they can get a run together and maintain consistency then it is certainly not beyond the realms of possibility. It’s all to play for and incredibly hard to call – expect there to be goals but the points being shared is the best bet.
Prediction: Dundee United 2-2 Aberdeen
Hamilton Academical v Dundee (New Douglas Park)
After a hugely promising start to the season in which they topped the table, beat the champions and went on a long winning sequence, it is fair to say that Hamilton’s bubble has now well and truly burst with just one victory in their last seven games in all competitions. Alex Neil’s men rarely fail to find the back of the net but their defensive record has plummeted – their rearguard being particularly leaky during last Saturday’s 3-0 defeat by Aberdeen. Dundee, meanwhile, have lost just two of their last six league matches and Paul Hartley will be keen to get back on track after losing to Inverness last time out. With November’s SPFL player of the month David Clarkson in tow, they certainly won’t lack a goal threat in north Lanarkshire. However, Hamilton have been decent on home soil this season and they should come out on top in the battle of the two promoted sides.
Prediction: Hamilton Accies 2-1 Dundee
Inverness CT v Partick Thistle (Tulloch Caledonian Stadium)
Inverness are one of the form teams in the Scottish top-flight at present with just a solitary defeat from their last nine. John Hughes has finally put down a marker and his own stamp on the club. Everything is coming together and he has come through some challenging periods to get to this stage. Their home record is always up there with the best and no visiting team gets an easy game at the Tulloch Caledonian Stadium. Partick Thistle are the definition of inconsistent – backed up by their last three results which have brought a draw, a win and a defeat. They tend to perform better on the road when the shackles are off and we see the best of their counter-attacking abilities. Defensively, the Jags leave plenty to be desired and Alan Archibald will no doubt reiterate the need to keep things tight at the back. It will be hard for them to get anything against a Caley Thistle side who sit only behind Celtic in the table.
Prediction: Inverness CT 2-0 Partick Thistle
Kilmarnock v St Johnstone (Rugby Park)
Kilmarnock are another team who were taking the division by storm at the start but have faded somewhat as the games have gone by. The Ayrshire outfit remain in the top six – albeit several points off the pace – and their main aim will be to stay there for the rest of the season. They reacted to their humbling Scottish Cup exit by Rangers with a well-earned point at Partick last Saturday but will be hoping to go one better on home soil against a St Johnstone side they beat in Perthshire earlier in the campaign. Tommy Wright’s team have won four of their last five after losing four of the previous five. They are only a point behind their hosts and could move into the upper half of the table with any kind of positive result. Goals have been hard to come by for both sides, who are difficult to separate at present, so don’t expect much goalmouth action.
Prediction: Kilmarnock 1-1 St Johnstone
Motherwell v Ross County (Fir Park)
It’s been a season with many more lows than highs for Motherwell and things still look just as bleak even after the resignation of manager Stuart McCall. Their resurgence has lost steam and their finances have been hit harder than ever before. After finishing second in each of the last two seasons, their landslide towards the bottom of the table is akin to that of Hibernian twelve months ago – and we all know how that ended. Kenny Black has tried to steady the ship but has struggled for results with just one win from four games – although they have all come against the current top three, including Dundee United in the Scottish Cup. The fact they only lost 1-0 to Celtic last weekend was a miracle in itself after the Hoops wasted a hatful of chances. There’s still a possibility that a new manager will be put in place before bottom-club Ross County visit Fir Park. Performances have been better than the Staggies’ points-total would suggest but they have often contributed to their own downfall. With St Mirren – whom they are level on points with – facing Celtic on Sunday, Jim McIntyre’s side will be optimistic that they can lift themselves off the foot of the table and cash in on Motherwell’s vulnerability. Only two points and two places are between the sides – and it might be a similarly tight margin on the pitch.
Prediction: Motherwell 0-0 Ross County
Cowdenbeath v Hearts (Central Park)
To think that Hearts are the only team unbeaten in Britain in league terms is quite astonishing. Enormous credit must go to Robbie Neilson for the way he has got his young team competing again after the ignominy of relegation. They are scoring goals, steamrolling teams and have a solid base at the back. Ever since they beat Rangers and Hibernian at the start of the season, they have never looked back. After a disastrous Scottish Cup exit to Celtic a fortnight ago, gaining promotion is now their only focus and they will achieve it if they can maintain their form through this tough period when the games come thick and fast. Cowdenbeath, second from bottom with just 11 points from 15 matches, are capable of putting a spanner in the works and ran Rangers close last weekend in a 1-0 reverse at Ibrox. Jimmy Nicholl’s Blue Brazil have lost five of their last six but their displays have been filled with plenty of promise. Should they make a slow start against Hearts, it is more than likely that they will be punished – and heavily.
Prediction: Cowdenbeath 1-4 Hearts
Hibernian v Alloa Athletic (Easter Road)
Rarely does a season go by without some sort of a rollercoaster ride at Hibernian, who are again experiencing mixed fortunes with an inconsistent set of results. The scale of Alan Stubbs’ task in getting Hibernian back to where they belong is only getting harder as the weeks go by. Easter Road should be a fortress but the Leith side have drawn their last four at home. They are already well adrift of Hearts and 10 points behind Rangers – with Falkirk and Queen of the South also breathing down their necks. Alloa may be down in eighth position after just one win in their last eight league outings but Barry Smith’s side are still enjoying the whirlwind from one of their biggest ever scalps. The sides only met a fortnight ago at Recreation Park with Hibs running out 2-1 winners in the Scottish Cup but it was Alloa’s exploits in the Challenge Cup which have made all the headlines after their thrilling comeback victory over Rangers. If Alloa can rise to the occasion again, it would be a cat among the pigeons but Hibs should have enough to edge it.
Prediction: Hibernian 1-0 Alloa
Sunday 14 December:
Celtic v St Mirren (Celtic Park)
They may have taken their time but Celtic well and truly have their feet under the top table and they fully intend to stay there. Their narrow victory over Motherwell last weekend should have been more emphatic but it was their seventh in a row since the reverse at home to Hamilton in October. Ronny Deila’s men will be difficult to displace now and they could consolidate their grip on first place – which currently stands at three points – against the Buddies. Numerous changes are likely to be made from the side which were defensively culpable in Croatia on Thursday night in their Europa League defeat to Dinamo Zagreb to keep the side fresh. St Mirren, meanwhile, have had a week of change themselves after Tommy Craig was sacked as manager. With only three wins in 19 games in charge, two goals in their last six league games, and no clean sheet all season, the decision to relieve the 64-year-old of his duties was hardly surprising. The future looks increasingly uncertain with the Paisley club currently occupying the relegation play-off place and boasting a squad which looks out of its depth. By the time their game in Glasgow finishes, they could be sitting bottom of the table and it would be hard to see how they could lift themselves from that position. It will be a home banker and, once the first goal arrives, a case of how many.
Prediction: Celtic 4-0 St Mirren