Champions Celtic worth opposing
In the absence of Gareth Friel, Colin Ross previews all the divisions in the Scottish Professional Football League this weekend.
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The last Premiership matches before the split take place this weekend, although the make-up of top and bottom six was actually confirmed a couple of weeks back.
This season there has been a sizeable gulf in quality and the top six are as predicted by most Scottish football experts before the season started. My focus is on two matches where club agendas are different.
First up is the Friday night Highland derby where Inverness Caley Thistle, who have been comfortably in the top six all season, make the short trip up the A9 to Dingwall to face a Ross County side who are still battling to avoid the dreaded second-from-bottom spot and the treacherous play-off finale.
County have had a tough run of games recently but a draw at Celtic Park and the same result at home to Aberdeen has seen two precious points gained in the scrap to finish above St Mirren, Kilmarnock or Partick.
The January recruits were vital for manager Derek Adams to bolster a side who had struggled in first half of season. Filip Kiss, Michael Tidser, Yoann Arqiun and Jordan Slew have all made positive contributions and strengthened the squad as results have improved.
ICT have basically relied on same players all season and whereas early-season form was impressive, occupying second spot for a while, recent form is exactly the opposite and the thin-looking squad have played twice a week for over a month with a scrappy 1-0 victory over Partick the only success in last nine matches. They lost at home again on Tuesday to Motherwell, with manager John Hughes stating, maybe unwisely, that some of his squad are jaded.
Youngsters Liam Polworth and Ryan Christie are sons of Caley legends Ian and Charlie but have been used sparingly and others in the squad also need to be given a chance, but so far Hughes has been reluctant to change. Inverness have had the upper hand in the derby since Ross came into the top flight but I feel that stat will be irrelevant to County players and the 13/8 could be a bit of value to see off their big city neighbours.
Per head of population, Ross County are the best supported team in Britain. With average crowds at Victoria Park around 3,000 and Dingwall's population a tiny bit over 5,000 it is seriously a community club and most of the 5,000-plus crowd on Friday evening will be hoping for a Staggies victory.
Saturday's 1245 BST kick-off sees Dundee United host champions Celtic. The Glasgow giants are deserved title winners a full seven games before the season completes, because they have the best players, biggest resources and strongest squad.
A little galling is the fact progress in cups was halted at an early stage and with some players sure to be leaving, some playing for a contract, one or two who hope to be involved in World Cup squads and their manager looking at alternatives, what the champions may lack in last six weeks is motivation.
Nothing beats a competitive edge and the Tangerines will have this in spades. Chasing second spot in league and a cup semi-final looming against Rangers next weekend, this talented side are value at almost 5/1.
As outsiders of three in the race for second, United have nothing to lose and with young Scottish talent like Ryan Gauld, Stuart Armstrong and Andrew Robertson, goals are on the agenda.
I advise an outright bet and a similar stake on over 3.5 goals at 7/4, with both prices appealing to me.
In the lower divisions, many matches have a tricky look and you have the added difficulty of of clubs close to securing a play-off spot taking a chance to give important players a break.
None is more tricky than the massive game between the top two in the Championship. Personally I feel Hamilton have slightly the stronger squad with more goals in the side. However, Dundee give little away and it has the makings of a very close affair.
Instead of taking a chance there, I prefer to side with Peterhead to cover a one-goal handicap against Montrose at 11/8.
The finishing line is in sight for the Blue Toon and a win could all but seal the title as Clyde play host to Annan.
Mightily impressive at home they have not lost at Balmoor in the league and recent home victories have come against in-form Berwick and East Stirling with goals to spare and keeping back door closed.
Goalkeeper Graeme Smith and defender Steven Noble have been close to ever-presents. Backed up by Jamie Redman and Graeme Sharp in midfield they have formed an important part of team success. When you also possess the top striker in league with Rory McAllister it is no surprise to have seen Peterhead grow stronger as season wore on.
The discipline problem has also been tackled and with a couple of new signings Jim McInally's men could prove very strong additions to League One next term.
Montrose travel up the east coast now six points and three places off the play-offs. Effectively their challenge is over. Inconsistency is well apparent down Links Park way and a 25-point gap with 25 fewer goals scored than Peterhead tells its own story.
The 1/2 for the home win is restrictive but by playing the -1 handicap I feel you have a decent chance of collecting the spoils.
For differing reasons I could be tempted by a couple of teams at fairly attractive odds, but will wait until I see team news before committing. That said Dumbarton's 3-0 reverse at Morton on Tuesday ended a gallant attempt by the Sons but too many games in short space of 20 days have taken their toll on the part-timers.
The consolation is games against Rangers and Hearts, among others, next season. They entertain Alloa, who still need points to make sure they face the same set of teams, and at 18/5 the away side represent some value. It's observation only for now but it may be worth an investment should team news be positive.