Scottish Premier League: Can Anyone Match Celtic?
This season was always going to be a little different in the SPL. With Rangers going out of business and leaving the league, it was seen as a given that Celtic would dominate from start to finish, leaving no chance for any other team to mount a serious challenge.
As it's turned out, Celtic have dropped enough points over the first 22 games to let another team into the race. The only problem has been that no team has been able to step up and put the sort of run of results together which might see them run Celtic close.
As it stands, with just over half of the season played, Celtic sit nine points clear of closest competitors Inverness Caledonian Thistle. ICT sit in second place ahead of Motherwell, Hibernian and Aberdeen, who have all played a game more.
Could any of these sides get it going between now and May and really push Celtic for the title?
Inverness Caledonian Thistle
Inverness have surprised everyone this season, going from a team that many pegged as relegation candidates to a side who are challenging for second place and a possible place in the Europa League.
While ICT are a ferocious attacking threat—their 44 goals put them ahead of everyone else in the division in that category—it is their defence which lets them down. Few teams in the league and none in the top six have conceded as many as 35 goals, which the Inverness defence has.
On many occasions, their forwards have been able to bail them out, but it hasn't always worked out that way. The 5-1 home defeat to Motherwell was a stark reminder of how porous they can be defensively. While the 4-4 draw with Dundee United turned into a valuable point, going 3-0 down was what cost them in the first place.
With a better defence, ICT might have been in a better position to really challenge this season. As it is, they'll have to settle for a more-than-respectable second place.
Having finished third last season, Motherwell are certainly the least surprising side to find in the top six in 2012-13.
Stuart McCall built on what was already a strong squad, managing to keep the majority of it intact going into this campaign.
Their results have largely been impressive, particularly their form away from home. In the 11 matches they've played away from Fir Park, they've won six and drawn two. That's good for the second best away record in the league. That record includes a stunning 5-1 win over Inverness, a result that continues to look like more and more of an achievement.
Meanwhile, their home form really hasn't been up to scratch. Three wins is not good enough for a side looking to challenge. Add in the fact that they'll be losing Jamie Murphy to Sheffield United by the time they return from their brief winter break, and it's hard to see Motherwell being able to trouble or even get close to Celtic.
Hibernian have come a long way from the team that came so close to being relegated last season, who were gubbed 5-1 in the Scottish Cup final by Edinburgh rivals Hearts.
Pat Fenlon has added the defensive solidity that Hibs lacked, and with dangerous players going forward—Eoin Doyle, Paul Cairney and Leigh Griffiths, with 14 goals to his name—has a side that is capable of challenging for Europe again.
The question is, can we really see Hibs going further than that? Granted, they did just beat Celtic 1-0 at Easter Road a couple of weeks ago and their home form has been good. However, consistency has been a real issue and it seems like every decent result they get is followed up by a disappointing one.
A 0-0 draw against a poor Hearts side was deflating when a victory would really have signalled their intent.
Like Hibs, Aberdeen are another side who have made vast improvements from last season. After 22 games, this team is only 10 points short of the 41 they managed to get over all 38 games last season.
Like the other challengers for second place, Aberdeen have been able to rely on a genuine goal scorer—Michael Higdon at Motherwell, Griffiths at Hibs and Billy McKay at ICT—in Niall McGinn. The 25-year-old has done the business when it counts to help his team win big games.
If Aberdeen really wanted to challenge, you get the feeling that they missed their chance back in November when they lost 2-0 to Celtic at Pittodrie. A win would have put them in touching distance of the champions, but their performance in the game proved rather toothless and they never really managed to create anything more than half-chances before Celtic found the goals they needed to secure the victory.