SPL November action – An SPL Top Four emerges

As the midway point of the season approaches, a glance the top of the Scottish Premier League would hold no great surprises for the casual observer. Celtic are in pole position, closely followed by Rangers, just two points behind. However, a closer look reveals a top four are beginning to break away from the rest of the pack, with Hibernian in third place, level on points with the Gers and Dundee United closely following.

Dundee United enjoyed an unbeaten November with manager Craig Levein winning the manager of the month award. His side won away at Kilmarnock before an impressive 2-1 win against Celtic at Tannadice. In one of the most dramatic finishes of any game this season, Celtic took the lead late in the game when former Dundee United captain Barry Robson won and then converted a 72nd minute penalty. Levein immediately introduced Jon Daly who equalized with seven minutes remaining, unleashing a towering header into the net from Danny Swanson’s corner. It was another corner that won the game for the Arabs, this time Darren Dods getting on the end of Swanson’s delivery and handing United their first win over the Hoops this millennium.

After earning a point at Motherwell with in an exciting 2-2 draw, the Dundee club has started December brightly with a 3-2 win over St Mirren at the weekend. The result means there is now a six point gap between fourth placed United and fifth placed Motherwell, with the Tannadice outfit just four points from the top spot. However, United fans will be apprehensive about recent reports that the SFA are planning to offer Levein the vacant Scotland manager’s job. Indeed, his former player – Celtic midfielder Barry Robson – has been one of his primary cheerleaders, telling BBC Scotland: “I’ve worked with a few good managers in my time and he is up there with all of them. He will look after you if you do the business for him and players appreciate that so it would be great for Scotland if we could get him.”

Hibernian know better than most that success in Scottish football outside of the Old Firm can often be a double edged sword, with the dismantling of their League Cup winning side of 2007, and subsequent seasons of mediocrity under manager Mixuu Paatelainen. However, new boss John Hughes is still showing signs that he may be the man to bring success back to Leith with the Hibees also enjoying an unbeaten November and keeping pace with the top of the table. First up was a trip across town to Gorgie to play Hearts in the season’s first Edinburgh derby. The game ended in a disappointing stalemate but Hibs had the best chance – Colin Nish hitting the post. Two weeks later, the Hibees could only draw at St Mirren, Derek Riordan’s 29th minute effort being cancelled out in first half injury time by a Chris Innes header.

The Edinburgh side’s form has picked up greatly however, with two 2-0 home wins, the first against Falkirk with the help of a Brian McLean own goal as well as Derek Riordan again finding the net. At the weekend it was Motherwell who were on the end of an Anthony Stokes brace, the two goals coming either side of the break. Hibernian have the best home record in the league, having won six of their eight home games so far. Easter Road is once again acquiring a reputation as somewhat of a fortress but a scan down the fixture list reveals a tough run of games ahead, with trips to Kilmarnock and Aberdeen and home games against Rangers and Hearts.

At the wrong end of the table, Falkirk are still in the sole relegation position with just eight points, although half of these were achieved during November. Early on in the month the Bairns achieved an unlikely point at home to Celtic in a topsy-turvy six goal thriller with Falkirk scoring over a quarter of their total goals for the whole season in the game. The Hoops led twice and Falkirk even took the lead with half an hour to go with a fine Pedro Moutinho volley. Two goals from Scott McDonald restored the Glasgow side’s lead, but the Bairns leveled through Mark Stewart.

Two weeks later in relegation six pointer against Hamilton, Falkirk moved to within a point of the Accies with a vital 2-0 win. Chris Mitchell and Lee Bullen were the scorers in what was Falkirk’s first and only win of the campaign so far. Since then a four point gap has re-emerged between the Bairn’s and safety with their defeat at Hibs and their 3-1 loss at home to Rangers at the weekend. Under pressure boss Eddie May – who replaced John Hughes at the beginning of the season after managing the club’s youth team – has hinted that he does not intend to remain in management for long, telling BBC Scotland:“I have a plan in my head that I will only be here for a certain number of years, and hopefully, I’ll leave the club in a good state.”

Just one points separates seventh placed Hearts from Kilmarnock in 11th in the bottom half of the SPL and if Falkirk were to pick up some form there are plenty of clubs for them to catch with Hamilton, St Mirren and St Johnstone all in trouble. Hamilton picked up a huge win at home to Hearts at the weekend, winning 2-1 in a match that will be remembered for six red cards, four of which were shown in the tunnel after the game, one to the Hearts team masseur – the SFA is investigating. Although in relative security, Aberdeen and Motherwell both struggled for form throughout November and seem in no position to mount a challenge for a European place, although Aberdeen did manage a 1-0 win over Rangers despite going down to 10 men. Despite both being eliminated from European competition, Celtic and Rangers sit first and second respectively and remain – domestically at least – the teams to beat.

Full results:

Saturday November 7, 2009
Aberdeen 2-1 St Johnstone
Hamilton 2-2 Motherwell
Hearts 0-0 Hibernian
Kilmarnock 0-2 Dundee United
Rangers 2-1 St Mirren

Sunday November 8, 2009
Falkirk 3-3 Celtic

Saturday November 21, 2009
Falkirk 2-0 Hamilton
Hearts 1-2 St Johnstone
Motherwell 1-1 Aberdeen
Rangers 3-0 Kilmarnock
St Mirren 1-1 Hibernian

Sunday November 22, 2009
Dundee United 2-1 Celtic

Saturday November 28, 2009
Aberdeen 1-0 Rangers
Celtic 3-1 St Mirren
Hibernian 2-0 Falkirk
Kilmarnock 1-2 Hearts
Motherwell 2-2 Dundee United
St Johnstone 1-1 Hamilton

Saturday December 5, 2009
Celtic 3-0 Aberdeen
Dundee United 3-2 St Mirren
Falkirk 1-3 Rangers
Hibernian 2-0 Motherwell
St Johnstone 0-1 Kilmarnock

Sunday December 6, 2009
Hamilton 2-1 Hearts

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