Revised Expectations for Every SPL Team
Reaching the halfway point in the season, it's always fascinating to look back and see how so much has changed over a relatively short space of time. Clubs who looked set for big things often find themselves having to deal with yet more disappointment, and others, who didn't really think they had much of a chance, are surpassing all expectations.
This year in the SPL is no different.
From the underachieving but hotly tipped Dundee United to the highly impressive ICT, the Scottish Premier League, as ever, has thrown up a number of surprises. It's time now to take a look at the expectations for each side, and how they've changed since we started the season way back in August.
Top six finish > Challenge for second place
A number of quality additions made by Craig Brown over the close season meant that Aberdeen kicked off the campaign with what was arguably their strongest opening-day squad in years.
Players such as Stephen Hughes and Gary Naysmith have brought the kind of experience—from years of playing in the SPL, England and at the international level—which was sorely lacking in last season's squad. The arrivals of Johnny Hayes from ICT and Nial McGinn from Celtic gave them a threat going forward, which Scott Vernon and Rory Fallon had found difficult to provide.
Nial McGinn, in particular, has been sensational through the first half of the season and is currently joint top of the scoring charts with 14 goals.
While Aberdeen haven't quite been able to put the sort of run together which might have seen them challenging with Celtic at the very top of the table, they've managed to get enough results to put them in a strong position to challenge for second place.
Aberdeen fans will be pleased at the progress that's been made, and will hope that a strong second half will, at the very least, give them the confidence and the belief to mount a more serious challenge next season.
Achieve a record points total > Win the league without it getting in the way of Europe
With the disappearance of Rangers, the general consensus was that Celtic would run away with the League, possibly racking up a record number of points in the process. But it hasn't worked out that way.
Europe, and their run in the Champions League have stolen much of the focus, and Celtic have found it difficult to get results in games which in the past would have posed little trouble—just look at the home defeats to Kilmarnock and ICT, and the number of times they've failed to pick up three points.
Ultimately, all that is of any importance to Celtic supporters is that they finish the season as champions, and this, despite their comparatively poor start to the season, is not in any doubt. However, given the absence of any real challenge for the title, fans might expect a little more in the way of entertainment.
At this halfway stage in the season, Celtic will be looking to secure the title as quickly as possible, but the priority will be to ensure that their league matches don't get in the way of any potential success in Europe.
With the tie against Juventus looming, it must be difficult for fans, players, and even Neil Lennon himself to think of anything else.
Avoid relegation > Avoid embarrassment/make sure the team is ready for next season
Given the awkward circumstances, this season was always likely to be difficult for Dundee.
Thrown into the league at the last minute after a farcical summer where the SPL came close to allowing newco Rangers to bypass three divisions to join, Dundee had very little time to adjust their budget, and build a squad that would really be capable of survival in the top flight.
Goals have been particularly hard to come by, even with the arrival of the once-prolific Colin Nish.
It says a lot that, at this stage, the club's top scorer is Ryan Conroy, whose goals have all come from the penalty spot.
The important thing now will be to keep Barry Smith in place, and hope that relegation doesn't affect their chances of getting promotion back to the SPL next season.
Dundee would have hoped that this year they would be challenging for the First Division title—they will be keen to ensure that a season spent in the top flight won't have a negative impact on their chances of managing that next time around.
Challenge for second place/the title > Top six/European place
Dundee United entered this season full of optimism after a strong finish to the previous campaign, and they hoped that star players such as Johnny Russell and Gary Mackay-Steven would kick on and really excel in the SPL.
Unfortunately, nothing has really gone right for United.
The team has had massive problems with inconsistency, and injuries to key players, most notably Sean Dillon and Gary Mackay-Steven, have proved difficult to overcome. Goals have rarely been a problem—they are the fourth-highest scorers in the division, with 33—but a frail defence is taking too long to sort out, and summer arrivals in the shape of Radoslaw Cierzniak in goal and Brian McLean in defence haven't really impressed.
What's also been worrying is that they are seemingly unable to win at Tannadice. Typically, good home form has been the backbone for any success United have had in the league in recent years, but their current run of ten home matches without a victory is one of the main reasons why they are where they are at this stage in the season.
While a strong run of results could mean that United have a chance of challenging for positions higher up the table, realistically Peter Houston has to be thinking that his side must focus on securing a top six finish.
Challenge for second place > Top six finish/avoid going into administration
In other circumstances, the absence of the now-defunct Rangers from the League would have opened up the opportunity for Hearts to go on and challenge for second place or even for the title.
Unfortunately, financial constraints have left their squad depleted, and it may only get more difficult from here on in.
While they remain the sort of well-organised defensive unit that is so typical of Hearts, the lack of a real threat up front has rarely been more apparent than now. With no prospect of much in the way of arrivals in the January transfer window, Hearts fans must be worried when they look at the squad John McGlynn has at his disposal in comparison with others in the SPL.
May's Scottish Cup Final success against rivals Hibernian now seems like a distant memory, and it was a mark of how things have changed when Hibs knocked them out of the same competition back in December.
With inconsistency a problem for every side, European qualification isn't completely out of the question for Hearts, but much more realistic would be to at least make it into the top six.
Top six finish > Challenge for second place
In many ways quite similar to Aberdeen, Hibs are a side who have managed to turn things around quite spectacularly from last season. They now find themselves in a position where they are able to seriously think about a second-place finish, and the prospect of European football—and possibly even the Champions League—at Easter Road next season.
Pat Fenlon has introduced something that has been almost unheard of with Hibs sides in recent years: defensive stability. This, combined with the goal-scoring prowess of Leigh Griffiths up front, make Hibs a formidable opponent for anyone, as Celtic found out at the weekend.
While not a league game, the cup win over rivals Hearts demonstrated this new side to Hibs and shows just how much Pat Fenlon has changed from last season, when many doubted whether he would be able to keep his job.
Fenlon has turned Hibs from a team that were occasionally impressive, but too often a pushover to a team that are difficult to beat.
This may well be enough to see them secure a second-place finish.
Inverness Caledonian Thistle
Mid-table finish > Challenge for second place
Without a doubt, the single most captivating story of the first half of this SPL season has been that of Terry Butcher and Inverness Caledonian Thistle.
While many at the start of the season tipped Inverness as possible relegation candidates—or at least lucky that Dundee were in the league to save them from going down—Inverness's first half has stunned pretty much everybody, except themselves.
Sitting in second place after 21 games, ICT are a side who have an incredible belief in their own abilities.
Although they are not the most convincing side defensively, this is more than compensated for by their attack, which is the most lethal in the division. Billy McKay has been a revelation with 14 goals, and he has been ably assisted by the ever-reliable Richie Foran and recently capped Scotland International Andrew Shinnie.
ICT have a mix that works incredibly well—young players throughout the side, with experienced players to help them along—and it's really quite hard to believe how well the team has jelled given the number of new arrivals and the average age of the side.
Victory at Celtic Park showed that Terry Butcher's team fear no one, and they will believe themselves totally capable of building on their successful first half and ending the season in second place.
Top six finish > Top six finish
In reality, very little has changed for Kilmarnock since they kicked off their campaign back in August. They remain a side who move the ball around well, are attractive to watch and are often involved in high-scoring games.
Perhaps even more so than other sides, in what is generally an inconsistent league, they don't seem capable of putting a run of results together that would see them push higher up the table.
Last season's League Cup Final win over Celtic was a landmark success for the club.
Kenny Shiels might have hoped going into this season that this was something the team might be able to build on, but realistically, a mid-table finish was always the most likely outcome. Shiels must be relatively pleased that things have remained steady.
Cillian Sheridan has proved a smart signing, notching eight goals through the first half of the season.
European qualification > Challenge for second place
In many ways, Motherwell seem the team most likely to finish second in the SPL, come the end of the season.
They have a seemingly deeper squad than some of their closest contenders, and they have options which allow them to adapt and to change games, getting results where they might otherwise have lost.
Coming into this season, Stuart McCall was able to start with a team that had remained largely the same from the previous campaign, and while Jamie Murphy's imminent departure might prove to be a blow to their chances, it will be softened if they are able to hang on to Henrik Ojaama.
Up front, Michael Higdon's goal scoring is a reliable asset, and Motherwell have already recorded impressive victories against some of their closest challengers for second place, beating ICT 5-1 away and winning 4-1 at home against Aberdeen.
If they are able to maintain their current level of performance, Motherwell will be difficult to stop.
Avoid relegation > Finish ninth or tenth
Coming into the season, it was difficult to predict how Ross County would manage.
After running away with the First Division title, the question was whether they would adapt quickly or take time getting used to playing at a higher level.
In a sense, both were true.
County impressed at the start of the season, and proved to be a side that were difficult to break down. They came within seconds of recording a famous victory over Celtic back in August, and had a defence which, for a long time, looked pretty formidable. At the same time, this defensive solidity perhaps hid their deficiencies in attack—only Hearts and Dundee have scored fewer than their 21 goals.
Relegation seems only a very faint possibility this season, but come next year, things could well be much harder for Derek Adams and his side.
Mid-table finish > Top six finish
From the outset, many suggested that St. Johnstone might find it difficult to maintain their place in Scotland's top flight, and that, at a push, they might be able to manage a mid-table finish.
As it's turned out, St. Johnstone have been pretty much as good as anyone else in the SPL this season, and currently sit just four points off of second place.
While to some extent this is surprising, when you look at the squad Steve Lomas has at his disposal, it becomes a little less so—MacLean, Hasselbaink, Beattie, Tadé and Vine give them options going forward, which any SPL club would be happy to have.
European qualification is a possibility, but St. Johnstone fans would be pleased to see their side finishing in the top half of the league.
Avoid relegation > Finish ninth or tenth
Possibly more than any other team in the SPL, St. Mirren are difficult to really pin down. From one week to the next, they go from lacklustre to highly impressive.
While decent results here and there have meant that relegation is only a very faint possibility, you get the feeling things might have been a little different if Dundee had had the time to build a squad that was properly capable of making a go of it in the Premier League.
This isn't putting it down to luck—Danny Lennon has built a strong squad with a good mix of youth and experience, typified by key players like Paul McGowan and Steven Thompson. But they will look to improve next season if they want to survive in the top flight yet again.