SPFL: The 4 Contenders to Be 'The Best of the Rest'
With around 10 matches to go before the Scottish Premiership finishes for the summer, Celtic are all but mathematically guaranteed the title.
The most intriguing battle, however, is for second place—the proverbial "best of the rest."
Four clubs can realistically throw their hats into the ring for that particular fight, with current second-placed team Aberdeen being the clear favourites following their Scottish League Cup triumph on Sunday over Inverness—another team worthy of consideration.
Add in Stuart McCall's Motherwell and Jackie McNamara's entertaining Dundee United and the quest for second is by no means a foregone conclusion.
The standings as of 16 March 2014:
Here, we take a look at the contenders for second place in the Scottish Premiership and point out each side's key figure for the run-in.
Current Position: fifth
Key Player: Aaron Doran
Terry Butcher was an exceptionally hard act to follow. It may be that John Hughes could not progress the side any further than Butcher had already taken them—yet the 49-year-old has still done reasonably well. "Inconsistent" probably comes closest to summing up his time at the helm so far.
Despite Sunday's League Cup final loss to Aberdeen on penalties, Hughes still has players with genuine quality at his disposal.
In Billy McKay he has a player who has already netted 20 times this season and left-back Graeme Shinnie has been tipped for a Scotland call-up due to his impressive form.
Attacking midfielder Aaron Doran may be the key man during the run-in. The Irishman had a blistering start to the season before fading slightly from January onwards. However, if the diminutive playmaker can rediscover his form, he is capable of supplying McKay with the chances he needs to propel Inverness back up the table.
Current Position: Fourth
Key Player: Nadir Ciftci
When Jackie McNamara's side click, they can be near-unplayable.
With guile, technical quality and flair sprinkled generously throughout the squad, it would be foolish to write Dundee United off so soon.
Stuart Armstrong has come of age in central midfield this season, while teenage sensation Ryan Gauld can be mesmerising and Gary Mackay-Steven, as ever, continues to impress.
But the stand out this campaign has been Nadir Ciftci. The summer signing from NAC Breda has been a class act, both scoring (13) and assisting (12) in almost equal measure so far. If the Turkish forward can go on a scoring run and United put together a sequence of results they showed they were capable of earlier in the season, then suddenly second place doesn't seem too far away.
Current Position: Third
Key Player: Iain Vigurs
In Stuart McCall, Motherwell may have themselves a weapon none of the other three contenders possess: familiarity.
The 49-year-old has been with the club for over three years. In that time he has led them to better-placed finishes in each season (sixth in 2010/11; third in 2011/12; second in 2012/13).
On the pitch, the Steelmen are not short of talent either.
While not possessing the quality in depth of Dundee United or Aberdeen, in Iain Vigurs and Lionel Ainsworth they have midfielders capable of creating chances and in John Sutton, a striker who has been putting them away so far.
Current Position: Second
Key Player: Barry Robson
Derek McInnes has transformed Aberdeen.
Sitting pretty in second place, a League Cup in the Pittodrie trophy cabinet and the possibility of a Scottish Cup final to come in May—not bad for a side who hadn't finished in the top six since 2009 and hadn't lifted a trophy in 18 years.
Midfielders Barry Robson and Willo Flood provide the base for a slick, counter-attacking team which allows the likes of Peter Pawlett, Johnny Hayes and Adam Rooney to shine.
The defence cannot be forgotten, though, and the performances of central defensive pairing Mark Reynolds and Russell Anderson, not to mention goalkeeper Jamie Langfield, have been instrumental in the Dons' push for a cup double.
Were McInnes to lead the side to second place and two cups, the only downside for the Aberdeen fans would surely come in the form of the proverbial double-edged sword: An inability to top that achievement and the host of clubs who would come calling for McInnes in the summer.
Well, they're favourites for a reason.