Judging runners and riders in race for third place in Scottish Premiership
With the Ladbrokes Premiership set to return this weekend, we look at those most likely to finish directly behind the Old Firm this season
We're just over six weeks removed from a Paul Heckingbottom-managed side going to Aberdeen and cursing their wastefulness that they didn't leave with all three points. It was a pretty damning representation of the hosts at the time, and even more in hindsight when Hibs' slight upturn in performance proved to be a false dawn. Derek McInnes and his men no longer looked like a viable European contender and pressure was increasing on the long-standing boss.
Since that game things have changed dramatically for the club from Pittodrie. They may have received an ugly black eye at the hands of Celtic in the only television encounter of their last five games, but they emerged victorious from the other four (keeping three clean sheets) and are once again odds-on favourites to finish best of the rest this campaign.
Considering they currently reside in third place it's hard to imagine anyone else beating them to the spot, especially when they've managed to get to this position despite injuries robbing them of their starting midfield for almost all of the season so far. With Craig Bryson getting up to full speed and Funso Ojo still to return, the Dons should only get stronger. Throw in McInnes' unwavering consistency in games against the weaker sides in this league and the Dons would appear to be an easy bet.
A potential caveat could be loss of Sam Cosgrove to injury, seeing as neither Curtis Main nor James Wilson looks anywhere near ready to fill his boots. There could also be a Scott McKenna strop on the horizon as Aberdeen get to the January window and realise nobody is even willing to pay half of their obscene asking price for the recently error-prone Scottish international.
There's a lot to like about the Steelmen this season. Declan Gallagher has been one of the signings of the summer as he continues to excel in the back four; Liam Polworth has made the jump from the second tier with surprising ease and brings the little bit of class needed in the midfield without David Turnbull; his midfield partner Allan Campbell is going from strength to strength as one of the league's brightest prospects, and in the likes of Sheerwin Seedorft, Chris Long, Devante Cole and James Scott, they have a varied selection of dynamic and dangerous attackers.
Perhaps we've been a little hasty in anointing Aberdeen as the leading contender considering Motherwell have won four of their last seven matches, losing only to the three teams directly above them in the league. Getting beat 3-0 at home by McInnes' side doesn't exactly scream 'third best team in the country' but that could be put down to a bad day at the office where Motherwell seemed perplexed by their opponents starting two athletic full-backs in the form of Greig Leigh and Zak Vyner in the centre of the park. In future head-to-head matches, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the claret and amber machine come out on top.
Manager Stephen Robinson may not have the consistency of McInnes, especially in a larger sample size, but he does have one of the better players in the Scottish Premiership to return. If Turnbull can rediscover his breakthrough form of last season, and doesn't immediately attempt to reboot his move to Celtic in the January transfer window, he could easily be the X-factor which puts them over the top.
Despite disharmony stemming from his training methods and an early U-turn over the manner in which Kilmarnock would play, Angelo Alessio has managed to keep the Rugby Park club on a course for the top six. They currently sit six points away from Aberdeen in third place, and with a lot of football left to be played they'll still fancy themselves capable of retaining their best-of-the-rest crown.
What's holding them back is their lack of quality in the final third. Last season they had Greg Stewart for the first half of the campaign and Youssouf Mulumbu for the majority of the rest. When neither were in the side it was evident how blunted the attack could be and that has continued into this campaign with no replacement signed - the addition of the shambling corpse of Osman Sow in the last days of the summer window screamed 'panic buy!'. As a result, only St Mirren and St Johnstone have scored fewer goals.
Alessio has maintained a stellar defensive record and if they can recruit well at the other end of the park in the January window then they could have the arsenal to make a real run at third place. The tricky part will be staying in touch with Aberdeen and Motherwell over the remaining eight fixtures between now and the winter break.
The Hibs players proved against St Johnstone that they were better than what Paul Heckingbottom was getting out of them. The club then followed this up by recruiting a manager with a strong background in Scottish football. Combine these two factors and there's a rich breeding ground for instant success, while a few necessary additions in the next window could also see Hibs storming up the table and challenging for a spot in Europe.
Of course, these are all best-case-scenario outcomes and the 12-point advantage Aberdeen have at present might just be too much to overcome when we're already a third of the way through the season.
Christian Doidge was recently included in a Team of the Week alongside Robert Lewandowski and several other world class talents. If he can do a poor man's impression of the Polish hitman and make the North American FIFA nerd eat his words over the next few months then Hibs could just have a chance. Otherwise, it's unlikely.
I'm probably looking at this through maroon-tinted spectacles, but I still believe Hearts have the third strongest squad in the league. They can demonstrate this if they're able to recruit a decent manager to replace Craig Levein and if they keep the majority of their key players fit for the remainder of the season.
Those are two massive 'ifs' and even if they were to come true, it would still take an incredible surge up the table for them to claw back the 13-point difference which exists at present. Even if they are the third strongest on paper, they're probably not *that* strong.
A surprise contender?
Regardless of how much you study it, football is still very hard to predict. It's the reason why we love it and the reason why I lose money to bookmakers every week. It could be the case that another contender, say Ross County or Livingston, could emerge.
That is unlikely. While the two clubs are sixth and seventh, respectively, neither have been in good form recently. Livi have failed to win in all but one of their last ten games in all competitions and County are struggling through a seven-match winless run.
Teams looked to have figured out the newly promoted Staggies (mainly, they have a boggin' defence), while the loss of Lyndon Dykes to injury exposed the lack of depth in key areas of Livingston's first team.
No other previously unmentioned club has looked remotely good enough this term.