World Cup? What World Cup?
While football’s greatest spectacle and all its attendant pageantry has dominated the sporting world for the past month, those in the absorbing world of the Scottish Premiership have been killing time, waiting for the drama and excitement of the elite resume.
With the restart just days away, let’s recap what has been a rather quiet few months in the top flight…
Sligo shocks and waste records
The lowest tallies in the Champions League, getting crushed by an Irish team before the end of Love Island and becoming famous for falling asleep on TV. You know it’s been a successful European tour for our clubs when that’s how you sum it up.
This was the campaign where Scotland had five – yes, FIVE – teams starting to fly the flag, with three of them guaranteed group stage football.
What could go wrong?
Advance Sligo Rovers. The League of Ireland side won at Fir Park in a Conference League qualifier first leg in July before Motherwell were sent out of the competition 3-0 on aggregate after the return. It would be enough to see manager Graham Alexander leave in stride.
Alright, Dundee United, over to you next. The Tannadice side got off to an amazing start to Jack Ross’ tenure, beating Dutch side AZ Alkmaar on Tayside in a performance dripping with confidence, cunning and class. Unfortunately for Ross, all of those features were left at Dundee Airport’s Lorraine Kelly departure lounge en route to a 7-0 comeback.
It was too much for some of the great traveling support from the United States who left early or, in the case of a poor Arab, took a nap halfway through, much to the amusement of the local television director. Sweet dreams aren’t made of that.
Heart of Midlothian, third last season, have launched a bid for Europa League groups, only for Zurich to bring the Edinburgh side into the Conference League. By far the Scottish side with the best group campaign, Robbie Neilson’s side didn’t exit their section but beat Rigas FS twice to finish third. The defeats of Istanbul Basaksehir and Fiorentina will have hurt, but hey, their fans had a decent few days off.
For the Old Firm, the groups of the Champions League are announced. Celtic went straight on as Premiership winners and fought hard against holders Real Madrid in a star-studded opener before faltering. This would be a theme that would follow from Ange Postecoglou’s side throughout the rest of the band’s campaign. Two draws against Shakhtar Donetsk was all they had to show to finish bottom of Group F.
Rangers, meanwhile, were arguably the team you would have backed to do best on the European stage. Last season’s Europa League finalists stunned PSV Eindhoven to return to the Champions League after a 12-year absence, but the experience brought little joy.
A 4-0 chase in Amsterdam kicked things off, with heavy defeats also inflicted by Napoli and Liverpool, ensuring Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s side recorded the worst group stage campaign ever of any team.
Never stop and never really start
Back in the Premiership, the campaign was special, with games organized at a frantic pace.
Celtic, despite an error at St Mirren on September 18, have been a domestic juggernaut, especially in the games leading up to that 2-0 loss at Paisley. Prior to this match in September, they had won every league game with a 25-1 goal difference. Since then, it’s 25-10 on eight consecutive victories. The Postecoglou team’s narrative has changed, but the story at the end remains the same.
Inconsistency, an overabundance of plays, changes in direction, and a lack of adjustment options, however, marred the campaigns of others.
Rangers have worked hard to build on their run to Sevilla or Scottish Cup success and are now nine points behind Celtic having dropped points in three of their last five games. Combine that with their Champions League disaster, the winter break has come at a critical time for Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s side, who even at this early stage need to restart.
Questions have been asked by fans about recruitment, with hints of holes in the shape of Calvin Bassey and Joe Aribo, particularly in recent weeks and on the European stage. Finding an attack option on the right is always a problem; get a cohesive tune from Ryan Kent another.
Antonio Colak’s goals in attack have been encouraging, however, and getting the most out of other newcomers such as Malik Tillman and the currently injured Tom Lawrence will be key to salvaging a title chase.
Aberdeen found themselves under manager Jim Goodwin and took advantage of third-placed Hearts’ heavy fixture list and mounting injury pile to move into third place. Behind it is the remarkable David Martindale, who made Livingston a real force. This is when he doesn’t repaint lines or fix broken goal posts like he had to before his team’s game against Ross County.
Beyond that, only seven points separate fifth from 11th, with Hearts not alone in being deprived of some first-team starters due to various knocks.
In truth, there will be plenty of support from those in Leith, Ross County fans, or even top-flight newcomers Kilmarnock, without striker Kyle Lafferty following his 10 game ban for a bigoted remarkwho await their respective really fiery seasons.
Lights, camera, controversy
Rumor has it that streams of children have been spotted walking around on Halloween dressed in black, wearing helmets and holding two fingers to their right ear.
“Tonight maw, I’m going to be Willie Collum. Silent checking in progress…”
Scottish football has a habit of consuming itself whenever something controversial happens, so it’s no surprise that the introduction of VAR has done little to quell misunderstandings among supporters according to which their club gets a raw deal.
Teething problems were always likely. Still, there were several delays and incidents that caused consternation among fans, managers and pundits. And this weekend there was more than one penalty appeal that the Sportscene panel disagreed with.
Scottish football fans need only look to the Premier League and other nations to see that the system isn’t perfect and many are hoping it comes back a bit more refined.
For us returning home, it can’t come fast enough.