Scottish Premiership returns: What is at stake?

Following an earlier than planned winter break, the Scottish Premiership returns on Monday with plenty at stake for all 12 clubs.

The action gets underway when Hibernian travel to Celtic Park followed by five games on Tuesday, including Aberdeen vs Rangers – live on Sky Sports.

Ahead of the action getting under way, we’ve analysed some of the major talking points and discuss if Rangers can hold off Celtic to retain the title, who could come out on top in the race for third and fourth, how the relegation battle will go, which January signings to look out for, and much more.

How the table stands

Title tussle

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Marvin Bartley, Craig Moore and Mark Wilson discuss the title race and the impact of Rangers manager Giovanni van Bronckhorst and Celtic boss Ange Postecoglou

Leaders Rangers have a six-point advantage over Celtic in the Scottish Premiership but the destination of this season’s title is far from decided.

The sides meet at Celtic Park on February 2, live on Sky Sports, with another two meetings on the horizon. It is these battles that are likely to determine which half of the Old Firm will lift the trophy in May.

Since Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s arrival at Rangers in November, the club have won all seven league matches under the Dutchman.

A tweak to the 4-3-3 formation used by his predecessor Steven Gerrard – with full-backs more controlled in attack, wingers asked to stay wide and more attacking licence given to the midfield – has also helped transform the form of key players.

Borna Barisic has rediscovered his form that helped Rangers win the title last season, Alfredo Morelos is more threatening in front of goal, Scott Arfield is featuring more regularly and scored key goals, plus players including Joe Aribo and Calvin Bassey are continuing to impress.

Across the city, Ange Postecoglou has rebuilt a Celtic squad that failed to win a historic 10th consecutive title last season and transformed them into serious challengers.

A high-press when out of possession, quick transitions into attack when with the ball and an entertaining style of play has excited the Celtic supporters.

That transformation on the pitch sees Postecoglou’s side rank above most of their rivals around goals conceded and shots on goal, plus above most sides in Europe’s top leagues for the average number of passes per match.

Both teams have little, if any, margin for error over the coming 18 matches.

The pride of coming out on top will be more than enough for the fans, but this season’s Premiership title comes with an even bigger prize. A place in the Champions League is all but guaranteed. With that comes a cash injection of £30m and rising.

Race for top four

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The panel on our mid-season review show discuss how Hearts, Motherwell, Hibernian and Aberdeen have started the season as the battle for the top-four intensifies

Just nine points separate third to sixth, with Dundee United only two points further back as clubs battle for the other European spots.

Hearts are currently in pole position after an impressive return to the top flight. Robbie Neilson’s side were top of the table after 10 matches – largely thanks to some outstanding performances from Craig Gordon, John Souttar, Cameron Devlin, Beni Baningime and Liam Boyce to name a few.

On top of that, some shrewd summer signings will mean any of their rivals will find it tough to dislodge them from third.

One club hoping to do just that however are Motherwell. Graham Alexander has signed a new contract at Fir Park after one year in the job. An eighth-placed finish last time around gave him time to settle into the job but the ‘Well fans will be demanding a top-half finish at least after an impressive start to this season.

The club’s transformation under the former Scotland international is clear to see on the pitch but also perhaps in Alexander’s trophy cabinet. He is the first boss outside of Celtic and Rangers to win three Premiership manager of the month awards in a calendar year, with only Neil Lennon, Steven Gerrard, Alex McLeish, Brendan Rodgers and Gordon Strachan to do likewise.

Image: Graham Alexander was named the Scottish Premiership manager of the month in November

While it is Alexander’s 10th season as a manager, Hibs boss Shaun Maloney is yet to experience a full month in the dugout. He left his role as assistant to Roberto Martinez at Belgium to take up the top job at Easter Road and made it two wins from two before the break.

Those results have moved Hibs into fifth and while their first match back at Maloney’s former club Celtic will be his toughest challenge as a manager to date, there is a renewed sense of optimism in the green-half of Edinburgh.

Image: Shaun Maloney has won both games since taking over at Easter Road

Stephen Glass’ Aberdeen – like Hibs – would have gone into the season with a hope of finishing third. A run of just two wins in 13 league games saw the Dons drop into ninth at one stage, however, a run of wins before the break has given the Pittodrie faithful hope they could still clinch European football next season.

While some key players have been linked with moves away from Aberdeen in the January window, Glass will be hopeful of replacing any potential departures and adding to his impressive summer additions which included Scott Brown and Christian Ramirez.

Image: Stephen Glass made Scott Brown his captain at Pittodrie

In stark contrast to that optimism at Easter Road and Pittodrie will be the disappointment at Tannadice Park that saw Dundee United fall from third to seventh. Five consecutive defeats before the winter break may be cause for concern among some fans but the club’s impressive start to the season under another new manager, Thomas Courts.

Taking four points from their initial ties with Rangers and Celtic in August and September, plus an unbeaten run of seven games, should serve as a reminder that United could still challenge in the bid to seal European football next season.

Relegation battle

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St Johnstone, Dundee, Ross County, St Mirren and Livingston are on the agenda as the relegation battle is discussed on our mid-season review show

St Johnstone find themselves in the unenviable position of being bottom – a surprise to many after winning a historic League Cup and Scottish Cup double last season.

This season, manager Callum Davidson has watched his side lose 12 league games, including seven on the bounce, with their last win coming back in October.

Davidson has moved early in the transfer window to try and solve his team’s problems in front of goal too with St Johnstone having scored just 11 goals in 20 matches so far this season.

Dundee – who only returned to the Premiership this season – are just two points above the Saints and will need their experienced players like captain Charlie Adam and Paul McGowan to help avoid an instant return to the Championship.

Ross County took until October to get a first league win of the season after overcoming Covid-19 issues and an overhaul to their squad and find themselves just clear of the relegation spots.

A new-look XI and change in formation took time to settle but it is clear the Staggies are finding their feet under Malky Mackay following his summer arrival.

It remains to be seen if they can stay clear of the bottom two – something Livingston and St Mirren will also be hoping for when the action gets back underway.

Will we see capacity crowds again?

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Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon says restrictions on supporters attending matches will be lifted from Monday

Thankfully, yes. Scottish Premiership fans will be able to return to matches following the winter break, with restrictions on large outdoor events in the country to be lifted from Monday.

The Scottish government announced a maximum of 500 people could attend games from Boxing Day for up to three weeks, in a bid to help slow down the spread of the Omicron variant of Covid.

That decision resulted in the SPFL board voting to bring forward the winter break after December 26, meaning ties on December 29 and January 2/3 were rescheduled.

However, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon confirmed the rearranged fixtures from January 17 will have no crowd limit.

Vaccine certificate checks will remain in place across Scotland and from Monday, those who had their second dose over four months ago will need a booster to be ‘fully vaccinated’.

Who could come up?

Sky Sports will broadcast the Premiership play-off final and there are a number of clubs who could be involved come May.

Part-timers Arbroath are one of five teams in the mix to gain promotion from the Championship after a remarkable rise under Dick Campbell.

He took charge at Gayfield in 2016 with the club second-bottom of the fourth tier. Six years and two promotions later they are on course to complete a remarkable journey to the top.

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Dick Campbell’s part-timers Arbroath are flying high in the Scottish Championship – so can they pull of a huge shock and reach the top flight?

Inverness Caledonian Thistle, who last featured in the top flight in 2017, are also in the mix under ex-Scotland striker Billy Dodds.

Kilmarnock were relegated last season but with Derek McInnes now in charge will be hoping for an immediate return to the Premiership, as will Raith Rovers and Partick Thistle who also make up the top five.

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Kilmarnock boss Derek McInnes says he is aiming to win the Championship title this season

New signings to look out for

What happens over the coming months may hinge on the coming weeks and the climax of the January transfer window.

A total of 11 clubs have added to their squads with time still left for St Mirren to do likewise as we countdown to deadline day.

Hibernian have been the busiest club so far with Rocky Bushiri, Ewan Henderson, Harry Clarke and Elias Melkersen arriving in addition to Chris Mueller, who had agreed a pre-contract last year.

Image: Ewan Henderson will make his move to Hibs permanent in the summer

Henderson was highly rated among Celtic fans and could be a key player for Hibs, as could Clarke who impressed at Ross County where he scored three goals and added two assists during the first half of the season.

Following the impact of Kyogo at Parkhead, there will be plenty of focus on Celtic’s trio of January arrivals from the J-League too. Reo Hatate, Daizen Maeda and Yosuke Ideguchi may need time to settle in Scotland but Postecoglou is confident they will be another hit for Celtic.

Image: Reo Hatate, Daizen Maeda and Yosuke Ideguchi all joined Celtic from the J-League

St Johnstone boss Callum Davidson conceded a major overhaul was needed if they are to have a chance of survival and he has not wasted any time.

Former Dundee United and Celtic striker Nadir Ciftci is one of three arrivals so far at McDiarmid Park, joining from Turkey. It’s a risk but if he finds the form which saw him score 33 times in 82 appearances for the Tannadice Park side, then it will be a shrewd signing until the end of the season.

Rangers have added versatile US international youngster James Sands on an 18-month loan from MLS side New York City, with the option to buy at the end of the season.

Image: Rangers hold an exclusive option to buy James Sands following his loan

The champions are interested in Hearts’ John Souttar too and may make further moves to strengthen their squad with Cedric Itten also back from his loan in the Bundesliga for the run-in.

Jay Chapman, Declan Drysdale, Dante Polvara, Liam Shaw, Carljohan Eriksson, Nathaniel Atkinson, Morgan Boyes and Caleb Chukwuemeka will feature once the top flight resumes, but it remains to be seen if Calvin Ramsay, Ryan Hedges and Craig Halkett will be there come midnight on January 31.

What we do know is when the action gets back underway, we’re in for a treat.

The individual awards

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Tony Watt scored a contender for goal of the season as Motherwell beat Dundee United

Individual accolades are also up for grabs over the coming months with Motherwell’s Tony Watt leading the race for the golden boot. With uncertainty surrounding his future, summer arrivals Kyogo and Christian Ramirez will fancy their chances, as will Rangers striker Alfredo Morelos, Liam Boyce, Kevin van Veen and Martin Boyle.

Helping set up those chances bring their own pride and Rangers captain James Tavenier already has more assists after 20 matches than he did at the end of last season. Several players are chasing the right-back but have their work cut out if they’re to catch him.

Keeping the ball out of the net is often celebrated as much as a goal and Celtic’s summer signing Joe Hart leads the way in the race for the golden glove. The ex-England shot-stopper is just ahead of Gordon at Hearts who is an early contender for player of the season.

The games coming up live on Sky Sports

Further dates, kick-off times and television details to be confirmed – all fixtures subject to change.

Tuesday January 18

Aberdeen v Rangers – Kick-off 7.45pm

Wednesday January 26

Hearts vs Celtic – Kick-off 7.45pm

Saturday January 29

Ross County vs Rangers – Kick-off 12.30pm

Tuesday February 1

Hibernian v Hearts – Kick-off 7.45pm

Wednesday February 2

Celtic v Rangers – Kick-off 7.45pm

Sunday February 6

Motherwell vs Celtic – Kick-off 1.30pm

Sunday February 6

Rangers vs Hearts – Kick-off 4pm

Sunday February 20

Dundee United vs Rangers – Kick-off 12pm

Sunday February 27

Hibernian vs Celtic – Kick-off 12pm

Sunday April 3

Rangers vs Celtic – Kick-off 12pm

Walker & Boyd’s team of the season so far

Following an eventful and unpredictable start to the Scottish Premiership season, Kris Boyd and Andy Walker have picked their teams of the campaign so far.

Rangers lead the way from rivals Celtic by six points but just two players from each side feature in Walker’s XI, while Boyd has selected three from either half of the Old Firm.

The pair agreed on just four selections and also went for different formations – with players from Dundee United, Hearts, Hibernian, Motherwell and Ross County also selected.

Click here to see who they selected.

Pick your best XI using our team selector

Source : Sky Sports