After seven years of unquestioned superiority at the top of the Scottish Premiership, this season sees Celtic facing a real title race.
In his first season at Parkhead, ex-Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers guided Celtic to a record-breaking season where they went undefeated in domestic competition. And although it was less dominant, Celtic still secured a second successive treble the following year. This season though Celtic started slowly. Defeats to Hearts, Hibs and Kilmarnock coincided with the failure to reach the Champions League group stage. This was new ground for Rodgers at Celtic as he has been used to unrivalled domination, at least domestically. The increased competitive nature of the league this season is epitomised by the fact there have been four different teams to top the table: Hearts, Kilmarnock, Rangers and Celtic. This dip in form wasn’t permanent however, a huge improvement in the autumn saw Celtic begin dominating teams in a more familiar manner. An incredible triple-treble is also still on the cards, after Celtic’s 1-0 win against Aberdeen in the League Cup final.
Across the Glasgow divide, Steven Gerrard’s high-profile and shock appointment as Rangers boss has so far proven to be a shrewd one. For the first time since their return to the top flight, Rangers look like serious title contenders. This was epitomised in the last game before the winter break, where Gerrard’s men beat Celtic for their first Old Firm victory in the league since 2012. That win put Rangers level with Brendan Rodgers’ team at the summit of the Premiership table. This prompted both of the Glasgow giants to hit the January transfer market. Gerrard has brought in experienced Premier League talents Jermain Defoe, who will provide back-up to the in-form Alfredo Morelos, and Steven Davis, who returns to the club on loan. Whilst they may seem to be wise additions, it is unclear as yet if they will be enough to propel Rangers to their first Premiership title since going into administration.
Celtic have responded to the growing threat to their dominance by hitting the transfer market as well. West Brom winger and Scotland international Oliver Burke has signed on loan, as has USA striker Timothy Weah, son of Liberian legend and now president George Weah, who comes from PSG. Both add pace and attacking flare to Celtic’s offensive line-up. However, some Celtic fans believe securing reinforcements at the back should be more of a priority. At the time of writing, Celtic sit top of the table with a six-point gap over their title rivals but with at least two Old Firm games left on the schedule it really is still all to play for.
It would be unfair, however, to say that it is only a two-horse race for the title. Steve Clarke’s Kilmarnock currently sit level on points with Rangers and are having an incredible season. Clarke took over the Ayrshire club last season when they were bottom of the league. Killie haven’t looked back and have continued their excellent form, finishing 2018 with more points than any other club during the calendar year. Whilst winning the league would be a monumental shock, their credentials can be seen in their recent win over Rangers where Jordan Jones, who will join Rangers in the summer, scored a last minute winner at Rugby Park. Whatever happens during the rest of the season, Clarke has transformed Killie into a club that will at the very least challenge for European football.
There is plenty of interest in the rest of the field also. Aberdeen, three times runners-up under Derek McInnes, bounced back from early troubles and are once again pushing to be in the top three. The Dons will be hungry for success in the Scottish Cup, after another Hampden disappointment in November. McInnes has also managed to take Greg Stewart back on-loan, much to the ire of Killie fans after Stewart’s performances for them in the first half of the season.
Hearts had their best ever start to a Premiership season and sat undefeated at the top of the table as recently as October. However, a string of injuries to key players and a loss of form saw whatever challenge Hearts were going to have swiftly killed off. If they return to their early season form though, Craig Levein’s men could well reach Europe or after a favourable draw, go on a good run in the Scottish Cup.
Tommy Wright’s St Johnstone have continued their impressive stint in the Premiership and look good for securing a top-six finish. With a fresh attacking line-up, the Perth club have added a new element to their game and continue to compete well with the better-resourced teams in the division.
Neil Lennon led Hibernian to promotion and a record-breaking Premiership points total in his first two seasons at the Edinburgh club. This year hasn’t been quite as smooth and a combination of declining form and the loss of crucial players such as John McGinn and Dylan McGeough in the summer leaves Hibs currently languishing in the bottom six. Rumours of a verbal confrontation between Lennon and his players and Hibs’ chief executive Leanne Dempster led to the Northern Irishman’s departure as manager, officially by mutual consent, at the end of January. Whoever takes the reigns at Easter Road could still get Hibs back in the top six and should manage to get past Raith Rovers in next round of the cup.
Livingston have proven their doubters wrong with their dogged style of play seeing them as high as third in the table. Whilst this form has declined, they have already done enough to likely secure themselves a second season in the top-flight. Stephen Robinson’s Motherwell impressively got to two cup finals last season but this year can be described as one of transition, with the Steelmen not in danger of relegation but also far off challenging for the top half.
The battle for survival is also looking an exciting prospect, with three clubs in real danger. Dundee replaced manager Neil McCann with Jim McIntyre earlier in the season and despite some signs of improvement still sit second from bottom of the table. With 38-year-old Kenny Miller leading the line for the Dens Park club, some real work is needed if they are to remain a Premiership team. Joining Dundee in the relegation fight are bottom club St Mirren whose assistant manager Brian Rice has surprisingly just taken the hot seat at fellow strugglers Hamilton Academical, who sacked Martin Canning in January. Both clubs similarly lack the attacking strength required to move away from the drop-zone. It is going to be an interesting scrap to see which team can survive automatic relegation or face the dreaded play-offs.
It has already been an exciting season in Scottish football and with the first true title-race in years on the cards, as well as the ongoing battles for Europe, top-half and survival, it looks like it will continue in the same mould through into May.