Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Talking Points from the Premiership

We love Armageddon
On a ByTheMin Aberdeen podcast earlier this week, BT Sport commentator Derek Rae mentioned how their broadcast team thought they could differentiate themselves from other ventures by being positive about Scottish football - an approach that would be nice for our overlords at the Scottish Professional Football League to adopt once in a while.  So rather than talking down the standard of the defending and the quality of the near-frozen pitch (although bravo to the groundstaff at Victoria Park for managing to keep the game on!) I'd say this was one of the best games I've watched this season.  

In the first half alone the momentum swung violently from one team to another.  Aberdeen looked like they would overrun Ross County in the first 15 minutes, with a flurry of corners and attempts on goal.  Then, suddenly, it all went the way of the Staggies - former Don Ricky Foster had a shot tipped over the bar, then Ian McShane was clumsily bundled in the box by Ash Taylor for what should have been a penalty.  Momentum swung fully their way moments later - Mark Reynolds pulled back Alex Schalk on the edge of the box and, as the last defender, received a red card; McShane duly stepped up to smack a low free kick under the premature leap of the defensive wall and into the net.

A man and a goal to the good within the space of a minute, it looked like County were fully in the ascendancy - and yet, they would find themselves behind less than 10 minutes later!  First, Chris Robertson pulled Adam Rooney down in the box and the striker pulled himself back up to score the resultant penalty.  Then, Jonny Hayes managed to conjure a yard of space on the left to whip in a cross to the back post for the onrushing Shay Logan - he was sandwiched by Foster and Jamie Reckord, but whomever it came off last the result was the ball looping into the back of the net.  An incredible first half wasn't even finished yet - Hayes intercepted the ball at halfway and his mazy run should have resulted in more than the ball being blazed over the bar; at the other end, returning Dons keeper Scott Brown made a magnificent double save from Brian Graham and Foster to preserve the lead; and back at the County end, another Rooney shot looked like it would be parried into the net by Scott Fox, but the keeper managed to scramble across the face of the goal to paw the ball clear.  Phew!

The second half could never live up to the dramatic first, but still had a couple more goals to entertain the crowded masses.  On the hour mark, Graeme Shinnie bombed down the left flank to fire another low cross - Rooney managed to flick it over Staggies skipper Andrew Davies at the front post, and Logan beat Reckord to the ball to score his second(?) goal.  It looked as if the ten men were going to see out the match comfortably, however another Lovejoy screamer meant that the Dons had to see out a more nervy last 10 minutes to hang on for a very hard fought three points.

It was an important win for Aberdeen to put behind the disappointment of their most recent cup exit - it seemed even more of an achievement having played for so long with 10 men and means that the Dons continue to hang onto Celtic's coat-tails by their fingertips with a Pittodrie dust-up with the Champions looming in just over a couple of weeks.  Ross County will be rightly disappointed themselves, but can expect a turn in fortune once they get some of their players back to form and fitness - Jackson Irvine surprisingly came off the bench rather than starting, while Liam Boyce and Craig Curran were clearly missed further forward - with a view to improving their place in the top half of the table.  After all, it's important to be positive. MI

Hearts at their best
The biggest shock in last weekend’s Scottish Cup 4th round was Annan horsing Hamilton Accies.  The second biggest shock was that Hearts only beat Aberdeen 1­-0.  It’s fair to say the Jambos have built a reputation this season as a “physical’ side, with all the negative connotations that come with that.  Against Aberdeen they showed the positive side of it and bullied the Dons, easily winning 50:50 challenges, shoulder barges and aerial balls without being able to capitalise on their early goal.

On Saturday they got all of that frustration in front of goal out, and poor Motherwell were on the receiving end.  Three goals in the first quarter set up an easy victory that was all the more impressive in light of the visitors' recent form.  I reflected on Mark McGhee’s second first game as ‘Well boss on these very pages and was less than impressed; I’m sure that his desire to prove me wrong played a big part in his team’s resurgence.  However, the absurdly congested middle of the Premiership table means that this defeat leaves them a point above the playoff position.

There’s only one team in the league that can handle Hearts on this kind of form at Tynecastle, particularly when short of numbers in midfield.  Sometimes they are a bit dirty, but when they’re on their game and just on the edge with their physicality, this Hearts team are great fun to watch.  If there was a way to combine the best aspects of Hearts and Aberdeen, Celtic would really have their work cut out. IM

Killie benefit from already being in scrappy mode
Rewind about a month and most of us had Kilmarnock pencilled in for eleventh spot...at least as long as they kept Gary Locke in the dugout.  Sure, they're still in that dreaded playoff position, but they've hung onto everyone else's coat-tails and are not only level on points with Accies and Partick Thistle, but only four points off the top six.

Locke and his players seem to have already grasped that they are in a relegation battle, and are playing as such.  Saturday, in snowy conditions that meant that the game had to be stopped in both halves for the lines to be cleared (why hasn't Killie's little orange tractor got its own Twitter account yet?), was perfect for scrapping, and so the home side ran out deserved winners over an Inverness team whose tippy-tappy stuff couldn't have been more inappropriate in the circumstances.

Those of us at Narey's Toepoker would still make Kilmarnock favourites to play in that playoff, but not by that much.  They may have an advantage over the teams above them because they've already realized that it's time for scrapping.  By the time others realize, their situations could be far more dire.  It's going to be close, and the biggest motivation for any of them to clinch a top six spot is because they can't get relegated.  In fact, this season the team in sixth could finish wth fewer points than the team in eleventh. LS

Who needs a holding midfielder?
Maybe, had they been playing a more stout opponent (I don't mean 'stout' in the Mixu Paatelainen sense of the word), Celtic would have been far more exposed.  But against a Dundee United side devoid of anyone who could break up play - John Rankin, bless him, ran around like a dog chasing a ball - Ronny Deila was able to deploy five attack minded midfielders and get away with it...and then some.  No Scott Brown, no Nir Bitton?  No bother.  Celtic were in all-out attack mode, and they could have easily managed double the four goals they put past Eiji Kawashima.

United couldn't have been more willing to indulge the champions, mind.  Mixu's insistence on sticking with three at the back was daft against a team playing only a lone striker, especially as none of the trio were willing to step forward to stop Kris Commons getting between the lines.  Celtic also ran riot in the wide areas, and one shudders to think what might have happened had they deployed a natural winger on the left who might have taken more advantage of Ryan McGowan's poor performance than Stuart Armstrong did.

That said, the home side did expose the lack of a holding midfield player once...and scored as a result; John Souttar bursting out of defence with the ball, with no-one to stop him playing in Simon Murray.  It was a cracking goal, which tells you what United can be capable of.  Unfortunately, the ones they conceded tell you what they're usually capable of.

Will Ronny Deila try such an aggressive lineup again in the future?  I doubt it - they're perfectly capable of scoring plenty with Brown and/or Bitton in the lineup.  But let's hope they do because it was really rather fun to watch. LS

Harkins' winter wonderland
Rightly or wrongly, Gary Harkins has a bit of a reputation for being the sort of player who is either up for it, or not at all up for it.  A freezing, snowy winter's afternoon at Firhill surely is the type of match in which he'd hide, right?  So much for that; the mercurial midfielder was pretty much unplayable in barely playable conditions against Partick Thistle.  Two goals later (and he won a penalty too), and this match was over as a contest by half-time.  His second was just gorgeous, smashed over Tomas Cerny from the edge of the box and dipping deliciously under the crossbar.  His mock-nonchalant non-celebration just added to the spectacle.

It would have helped, of course, if the first three goals hadn't been pretty much gifted.  The first was a nightmare for Liam Lindsay - who was later sent off - as the young defender was dispossessed by Harkins and then hung out a lazy leg to give away a spot-kick.  The second was the result of a Tomas Cerny punch that wouldn't have hurt a butterfly.  And the third was inexcusable - rule one of playing Dundee is "never, ever, let Greg Stewart come inside onto his left foot to have a shot".

So much for Thistle's revival - they are now level on points with Kilmarnock and Accies and back in the playoff dogfight.  Worryingly for Alan Archibald, they were utterly bossed in midfield in the absence of Abdul Osman.  With Osman linked with moves away in the summer, and Stuart Bannigan apparently interesting Aberdeen sooner than that, the Jags are at risk of losing their midfield backbone - two players that they would really struggle to replace. LS

O'Halloran overshadows Perth proceedings
What to say about St. Johnstone v Accies?  It was a terrible game by all accounts, not helped by the atrocious Perth pitch; the ball couldn't have bobbled more if the turf had been ploughed pre-kickoff.  Credit to Sportscene for actually stretching the highlights out to nearly two minutes - the most interesting moment of which was Steven Anderson handballing in the box and then holding his head afterwards in an attempt to con referee Andrew Dallas (who may have judged it accidental anyway).

The big talking point, of course, was the absence of the home side's talisman, Michael O'Halloran - he had been dropped in case all the midweek speculation regarding a move to Rangers had screwed him up.  It says something for the boy's professionalism (or lack of) if all the talk had messed his head - whilst doubtless plenty of players would still see it as a step up, he's not going to be offered the crazy money that the Gers were paying the likes of Ian Black or Fran Sandaza...or, if he is, they're doomed again.

Rangers' tactics were pretty embarrassing, I thought; I'd have loved to see more journalists calling out their derisory bids as such, and criticizing them for a pretty ill-disguised attempt to unsettle a player...rather than helpfully contributing to the process.  St. Johnstone don't need to sell the attacker urgently, as he has 18 months on his contract.  A figure closer to that received for Stevie May two summer ago - around £600,000 - would seem appropriate to this blogger.

After a wonderful autumn, Saints' have hit a sticky patch just now, and it's worth noting that only eight points separate them (in fourth) from that relegation playoff spot.  It would take an almighty collapse and a bizarre run of results to drop them into trouble...but I imagine they'd like a few more points on the board before letting O'Halloran leave for Ibrox. LS

Martin Ingram (MI) is our Aberdeen Correspondent.  Legend has it that he is the tallest man in the Red Army.  He writes regularly for Aberdeen fanzine The Red Final.

Iain Meredith (IM) is technically a Rangers fan, but these days he tends to support them ironically.  He agreed to help with this blog because now he can tell his wife that he's "only watching the game to help a friend out".

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

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