After a summer of transfer activity, pre-season friendlies and European exploits, the 12 top-flight teams are preparing to return to Scottish Premiership action this weekend.
Nine months of drama, excitement and controversy lie ahead in what promises to be an exciting 2015/16 season at the top and bottom – and it all starts with the opening round of fixtures which include some intriguing match-ups.
Celtic are gearing up for a fifth successive league crown, Inverness are looking to build on winning their first major trophy in the Scottish Cup last term and Hearts are back in the top-flight following a one-year absence after romping to the Championship title.
Indeed, Celtic, Aberdeen and Inverness have already been flying the flag for Scotland in Champions League and Europa League qualification respectively with Caley Thistle falling at the first hurdle in their maiden European venture.
Although there are no managerial debuts, Hamilton player-coach Martin Canning, Kilmarnock’s Gary Locke, Motherwell boss Ian Baraclough and Ross County’s Jim McIntyre are embarking on their first full season in charge at their respective clubs.
The SPFL programme began in earnest last Saturday in the first round of the Petrofac Training Cup and Championship, League One and League Two clubs will be in League Cup action over the weekend.
But the focus will undoubtedly be on the eagerly-anticipated return of top-flight football in the newly-named Ladbrokes Premiership as Scottish football supporters get the first glimpse of players at new clubs and make initial judgements about how the campaign may unfold.
Ladbrokes Premiership – Opening Weekend Fixtures:
Saturday 1st August Celtic v Ross County KO 12:45pm (Live on Sky Sports)
Saturday 1st August Hamilton v Partick Thistle KO 3pm
Saturday 1st August Kilmarnock v Dundee KO 3pm
Saturday 1st August Inverness CT v Motherwell KO 3pm
Sunday 2nd August Hearts v St Johnstone KO 12:30pm (Live on BT Sport)
Sunday 2nd August Dundee Utd v Aberdeen KO 3:30pm (Live on Sky Sports)
CELTIC v ROSS COUNTY
Celtic will unfurl the Scottish Premiership flag before beginning their quest for a fifth successive league title against Ross County in Saturday’s lunchtime kick-off.
The Hoops – who hold a 1-0 lead in their Champions League third qualifying round tie with Azerbaijan champions Qarabag – begin their second season under Norwegian boss Ronny Deila seeking to build on last year’s Premiership crown and League Cup double.
Deila has openly targeted a domestic treble – as well as reaching the Champions League group stages – having come close to securing a first Celtic clean sweep since 2001 last term but for a controversial Scottish Cup semi-final defeat to eventual winners Inverness.
The Staggies are starting their fourth successive season in Scotland’s top-flight – and first full campaign under manager Jim McIntyre – after narrowly avoiding the two-legged play-off final last term with a final-day win over Kilmarnock securing a ninth-place finish.
It is a repeat of the opening day fixture of 2013-14 when Anthony Stokes struck twice for Celtic – including an 87th-minute winner – as they came from behind to win 2-1 at Parkhead.
Deila said he does not know what to expect of the new-look Staggies but hopes they can mark flag day in a similar way to last year when the Hoops demolished Dundee United 6-1 before the upcoming Champions League trip to Baku on Wednesday night.
Celtic will be without striker Nadir Ciftci who starts a six-match domestic ban for biting Dundee’s Jim McAlister while at Dundee United on the final day of last term so Leigh Griffiths is expected to take his place in attack.
Charlie Mulgrew and Kris Commons are likely to be on the bench after recovering from a knee injury and broken toe respectively and Emilio Izaguirre is also suspended for five yellow cards at the end of last season.
Ross County’s only absentee is defender Jamie Reckord, who has an Achilles problem, while several of their 12 summer signings should make their debuts.
Referee: Willie Collum
Prediction: Celtic 2-0 Ross County
HAMILTON ACCIES v PARTICK THISTLE
New Douglas Park
Hamilton Academical begin their first full season under player-manager Martin Canning against fellow relegation favourites Partick Thistle in north Lanarkshire.
The newly-promoted Accies – on their first top-flight return since 2011 – surprisingly topped the Premiership last October after an historic win at Celtic Park which summed up their impressive start to the season under Alex Neil.
But the highly-rated 33-year-old left to become Norwich City’s manager in January along with top scorer Tony Andreu while fellow striker Mikael Antoine-Curier also departed.
Since then, inexperienced defender Canning took over the managerial reins and presided over a 13-game winless run with just three victories in 18 games in charge as they slipped into the bottom six.
Now with Hearts, Kilmarnock and Ross County seemingly getting stronger, both Accies and Saturday’s opponents Thistle are considered by many to be the deepest in trouble.
Alan Archibald’s Thistle displayed their usual Achilles heel – inconsistency – last term to finish directly underneath Accies in eighth place having lost more games than they won.
But their safety was only secured in the latter weeks of the campaign and the Jags will be desperate to reach the 40-point mark as quickly as possible although it will be no easy feat having lost several key players including Kallum Higginbotham, Scott Fox and James Craigen.
Hamilton player-manager Martin Canning is missing with a calf knock while Danny Redmond, Eamonn Brophy, Darren Lyon and Michael Devlin are also out on the sidelines.
Recent signing Salva Chamorro is short of fitness and midfielder Darian MacKinnon is suspended.
Partick Thistle forward Steven Lawless completes a two-game for breaching betting rules last season.
Referee: Brian Colvin
Prediction: Hamilton Accies 1-1 Partick Thistle
KILMARNOCK v DUNDEE
Two teams who leapfrogged each other on a number of occasions and were separated by four places and four points in last season’s standings meet on the opening weekend for the second year running.
Dundee could only draw 1-1 with Kilmarnock at Dens Park 12 months ago in their first match since returning to the top-flight despite dominating the game.
The Dark Blues, however, went on to achieve manager Paul Hartley’s top-six aim but ended up with fewer points than Hamilton and Partick Thistle – who finished seventh and eighth respectively – after six defeats in their last seven league games.
Having mainly recruited from the lower divisions of Scottish football, Hartley will be hoping those players can step up to the higher level if they are to avoid being embroiled in relegation trouble or mid-table mediocrity.
Kilmarnock, meanwhile, will be optimistic ahead of Gary Locke’s first full season in charge that a first top-six finish in five years is a realistic possibility ahead of what is expected to be another tight tussle near the bottom.
Former Hearts boss Locke – who replaced Allan Johnston in February after he tendered his resignation – has brought in plenty of experience with goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald joining from Falkirk while striker Kris Boyd has returned for a third spell and Lee McCulloch has come in as a player-coach.
After finishing 10th last term, the Ayrshire club’s first objective will be to stave well clear of the two relegation berths while Locke – who helped Hearts reach the League Cup final in 2013 – will hope he can replicate Killie’s success in the competition in 2012.
Victory for either side at Rugby Park would be a huge boost ahead of tricky fixtures ahead with Dundee travelling down Tannadice Street to close neighbours Dundee United and Killie hosting champions Celtic on matchday three.
Kilmarnock midfielder Craig Slater is recovering from double hernia surgery and will miss several weeks.
Dundee pair Kostadin Gadzhalov and Nicky Low are missing through injury and James McPake is suspended.
Referee: Bobby Madden
Prediction: Kilmarnock 2-1 Dundee
INVERNESS CALEY THISTLE v MOTHERWELL
Tulloch Caledonian Stadium
Inverness Caley Thistle will be hoping to put their early European exit behind them when kicking off their Premiership campaign against Motherwell.
The Highlanders lost 1-0 on aggregate to Romanian side Astra Giurgiu in the Europa League second qualifying round despite competing admirably and producing two excellent displays.
John Hughes’s men had qualified for the competition for the first time on the back of arguably the best season of their 21-year existence which brought their highest-ever league finish of third-place and their first major trophy in the Scottish Cup.
Sustaining such success and dealing with expectation will be a tough task for Caley Thistle – who won half of their 38 league games last term – without the departed Graeme Shinnie, Marley Watkins and Nick Ross while most of their summer imports are unproven names from abroad.
Meanwhile, Motherwell extended their 30-year stay in the top-flight by thrashing Rangers 6-1 on aggregate in the play-off final after a difficult year of decline resulted in an 11th place finish following three successive years in the top three.
A disastrous start to 2014-15 prompted Stuart McCall’s early resignation after five years in charge at Fir Park before Ian Baraclough took over the reins in December but, despite eventually improving their form, the former Scunthorpe boss could not prevent the two-legged tie against the Gers.
The Steelmen have refreshed their squad with another hefty player turnover and are still on the lookout for players – with a bid believed to be rejected for St Patrick’s midfielder Greg Bolger on Friday – but the Lanarkshire outfit appear to be in a more healthier position and should be competing further up the table this time around.
Motherwell have, though, lost on three of their last four trips to the Tulloch Caledonian Stadium but did come out on top against Caley Thistle at Fir Park in their last meeting in February.
The Steelmen beat Inverness 3-0 on the opening day in 2011-12 and have not conceded in their first league fixture in the past four seasons.
On-loan Middlesbrough goalkeeper Connor Ripley could make his Motherwell debut after the 22-year-old Englishman joined on Friday until January but striker Craig Moore is unavailable after he joined Ayr United on loan.
Lionel Ainsworth begins a two-match ban for his part in the post-match brawl against Rangers in last season’s play-off final and Craig Reid is yet to return to action following a knee problem.
Inverness midfielder Jordan Roberts is still nursing a groin injury while Carl Tremarco and James Vincent are fitness doubts but new striker Andrea Mbuyi-Mutombo will be in the squad.
Referee: Crawford Allan
Prediction: Inverness Caley Thistle 1-0 Motherwell
HEARTS v ST JOHNSTONE
Hearts will unfurl the Scottish Championship flag before opening their Premiership season against St Johnstone at Tynecastle.
The newly-promoted Jambos secured an immediate top-flight return by comfortably winning the second-tier title last term ahead of Rangers and Edinburgh rivals Hibernian in head coach Robbie Neilson’s first season at the helm.
Free-flowing attacking football and a reliance on home-grown talent were the prerogatives for the Edinburgh outfit, scoring 96 goals and losing just three games to finish 21 points above their nearest challengers.
The Jam Tarts begun their competitive campaign on Thursday night with a comeback win over Arbroath to reach the League Cup second round.
But Neilson – who afterwards set the Jambos the target of a top-six finish – was disappointed with aspects of his side’s play and will be desperate for his side to announce their arrival with three points and an improved display on the opening weekend.
Despite a mixed pre-season and bringing in only a small number of new players, Hearts will undoubtedly be well prepared for the task ahead and confident of making an impact rather than simply avoiding the pathway back to the Championship.
First up is a St Johnstone side who have had several weeks to regroup after falling at the first hurdle in the Europa League having qualified by virtue of Inverness winning the Scottish Cup.
The Saints wiltered in Armenia in a narrow first-leg defeat before going out on away goals to Alashkert despite a 2-1 win against 10 men in the return fixture at McDiarmid Park.
Tommy Wright’s men have now finished in the top-six in the past four seasons and clinched fourth place last term after losing just one of their last nine league matches.
The 2014 Scottish Cup winners can pose a serious threat on their day and have bolstered their numbers with SPL know-how in the shape of Motherwell’s top scorer last season John Sutton, a return for Liam Craig and defender Brad McKay from Saturday’s opponents Hearts.
The Jambos have opened their last two top-flight campaigns against the Perthshire men – winning 2-0 against 10-man Saints in 2012 before a 1-0 defeat away from home in 2013 – while St Johnstone are seeking a hat-trick of opening-day victories after beating Ross County last year.
Hearts remain without Soufian El Hassnaoui and Miguel Pallardo but Prince Buaben is available after being rested for Thursday’s League Cup win over Arbroath.
Nigeria left-back Juwon Oshaniwa has not yet complete his protracted move.
St Johnstone duo Simon Lappin and Frazer Wright have recovered from knocks but Steven MacLean is suspended and Liam Caddis joins long-term absentees Steven Anderson, Dave Mackay and Murray Davidson on the sidelines.
Referee: Steven McLean
Prediction: Hearts 2-2 St Johnstone
DUNDEE UNITED v ABERDEEN
European hopefuls Dundee United and Aberdeen lock horns in Sunday’s New Firm derby at Tannadice in the reverse of last season’s opening weekend fixture.
Jackie McNamara’s men began the campaign steadily but plummeted in the second half after losing Gary Mackay-Steven and Stuart Armstrong to Celtic in January – winning just three of their final 15 league games and losing 2-0 to Celtic in the League Cup Final.
After eventually finishing fifth in the top-flight, they have also lost all six of their pre-season fixtures and top scorer Nadir Ciftci to the champions while attracting the brother of Netherlands star Wesley Sneidjer is the most productive of their summer acquisitions.
Aberdeen have been beaten on three of their last four trips to the City of Discovery with the latest defeat carrying plenty of significance – the 1-0 loss in May confirmed Celtic as champions thus ending the Dons’ brave title tilt.
But Derek McInnes’s men finished only 17 points behind the Hoops in comparison to 31 the year before and have added quality if not quantity so far in the transfer window to aid their Europa League mission with Scottish Cup winner Graeme Shinnie the stand-out purchase.
The Dons will undoubtedly be the sharper of the two teams having already played five European ties since the start of July but could also be plagued by mental and physical fatigue after making the longest Uefa journey of some 3,415 miles to Kazakhstan on Thursday night.
Kenny McLean’s away goal in the 2-1 defeat to Kairat Almaty means a place in the play-off round would be theirs with a 1-0 win at Pittodrie in next week’s second leg. But for the moment, the Scottish Premiership runners-up will be hoping to make a victorious start to league business and build on what was their best top-flight finish since 1994.
Indeed, both teams will be desperate to make a winning start in a bid to close the gap between themselves and Celtic, who they are expected to challenge more robustly this time around.
Dundee United trio Ryan Dow, Callum Morris and Paul Paton are nursing injuries picked up in pre-season while Croatian striker Darko Bodul will be competing with Simon Murray, Mario Bilate and Robbie Muirhead for places in attack for the home side.
Aberdeen boss Derek McInnes has confirmed he may make several changes following his side’s Europa League trip to Kazakhstan this week.
Defender Mark Reynolds is a long-term absentee as he recovers from shoulder surgery picked up in the European tie with Rikeja.
Referee: Kevin Clancy
Prediction: Dundee United 1-2 Aberdeen