Scottish Premier League December action – Normal service resumed

As Dundee United and Hibernian found out to their cost, a week can be a treacherously long time in football. Initially, the month of December heralded the real possibility of a four way title race in the SPL, but as 2010 got underway the league table took on a very familiar look.

For the Hibees the month started very well – a point at Kilmarnock and a subsequent win at Aberdeen meant they were enjoying the longest unbeaten run of any SPL club this season and they found themselves just one point behind second place Celtic and five points from the leaders Rangers. At the same stage and despite a dip in form, Dundee United sat in fourth place, five points behind Hibernian but with a game in hand. A goalless draw at Hearts had been followed by the rescheduled visit of Rangers who coasted to a 3-0 victory, yet some pundits were daring to suggest that not only was there a chance that a team could split the Old Firm at the top of the table, but that the championship could go to somewhere other than Glasgow for the first time since Aberdeen achieved the feat in 1985.

Such aspersions proved premature however as the Christmas period proved destructive to Hibs and United’s title hopes in equal measure as well as the SPL fixture card that was greatly fragmented due to the weather. The first blow for Dundee United came when they lost their manager – Craig Levein being unable to resist the lure of the Scotland job. Three days later on Boxing Day, Peter Houston took control of the side at Tannadice and watched his side play out a disappointing 0-0 draw with second bottom Kilmarnock.

Credit for reasserting the Glasgow hegemony must at least partially be given to the blue half of the Old Firm as Rangers faced a tough looking Christmas double header – a trip to Hibernian followed by the visit of Dundee United. The Hibees got off to the dream in the match at Easter Road, Anthony Stokes scoring after just 12.4 seconds – the fastest ever goal in the SPL – and they could have easily doubled their lead during a pulsating opening twenty minutes. The Gers drew level after 21 minutes, Kenny Miller breaking free of the Hibees back line and expertly finishing. From then on Rangers simply sat back, soaked up the pressure and hit back devastatingly on the break time and again, running out 4-1 winners, a cruel blow to the Edinburgh club’s season hopes.

Three days later the Glasgow side were doing their best to destroy Dundee United’s season with a thumping 7-1 victory at Ibrox. Kris Boyd netted five and in doing so became the Scottish Premier League’s all time top goal scorer – his haul of 160 surpassing the record set by Henrik Larsson. The Gers’ finishing was devastating, their seven goals coming from just eleven shots on goal and the result meant they ended the year with a seven point advantage at the top of the SPL and significantly 11 points from third placed Hibs – 15 from Dundee United. Normal service resumed then, and the new look to the top of the table even prompted Scotland on Sunday into issuing a tongue-in-cheek apology for daring to suggest the title could leave Glasgow.

The first fixture card of 2010 presented the enticing double header of both the Old Firm and Edinburgh derbies. Celtic needed all three points to pull back some of the seven point lead that their fierce rivals had established following their own 2-1 defeat by Hearts and the early signs suggested they had every chance of pulling this off. Rangers had lost Kenny Miller to injury and Nacho Novo had to be withdrawn with a muscle injury early in the first half meaning as they say back and soaked up the Celtic pressure they had none of the counter-attacking threat that had proved so potent against Hibernian. The Hoops, however, were wasteful in front of goal and squandered a number of excellent chances. Rangers’ Kyle Lafferty was also lucky to stay on the pitch after a shocking tackle on Andreas Hinkel, who himself was fortunate to emerge unscathed. In the second half the Celtic pressure finally told as substitute Scott McDonald headed the home side in front after some excellent wing play from Aiden McGeady. Rangers finally had to show a bit of ambition and found themselves on level terms just two minutes later when Lee McCulloch headed home Steven Davis’s corner. The Gers again sat back and held out for a point, but it took an excellent save from Allan McGregor, diverting a Georgious Samaras shot over the bar to maintain his sides’ seven point advantage at the top of the SPL.

Just 45 minutes later – over on the east coast – the Edinburgh derby got underway, with Hibs given an opportunity to make up at least a couple of points on the leaders. Hearts – who themselves have found some excellent form and now sit fifth in the league – took the lead in the first half through 18-year-old Gordon Smith’s header. Hibs hit back early in the second half, Stokes heading in from Derek Riordan’s cross from the left. The game was scrappy and the rest of the match was only really notable for the sending off of Darren McCormack and Ruben Palazuelos for head-butting each other. The Hibees pressed for a winner, but neither side looked convincing enough to win the game with a point apiece probably the fair result.

Elsewhere, Motherwell have sacked their manager Jim Gannon following a 3-1 home defeat to St Johnstone and appointed 69-year-old former Scotland boss Craig Brown as a temporary replacement. Falkirk remain in the relegation place, but a point gained at St Mirren followed by vital 2-1 win at Kilmarnock mean they are now just two points from Killie and four points from Hamilton Academicals – both clubs having winless Decembers. St Mirren enjoyed a good start to 2010 beating Kilmarnock, but will still need to pick up vital points, hovering just five points above the Bairns.

Full results

Saturday December 12, 2009
Aberdeen 1-2 Hamilton
Hearts 0-0 Dundee United
Kilmarnock 1-1 Hibernian
Motherwell 2-3 Celtic
Rangers 3-0 St Johnstone
St Mirren 1-1 Falkirk

Tuesday December 15, 2009
Dundee United 0-3 Rangers

Saturday December 19, 2009
Aberdeen 0-2 Hibernian
Kilmarnock 1-2 Falkirk
Rangers 6-1 Motherwell
St Johnstone 1-0 St Mirren

Sunday December 20, 2009
Hearts 2-1 Celtic

Saturday December 26, 2009
Celtic 2-0 Hamilton
Dundee United 0-0 Kilmarnock
Falkirk 0-1 Hearts
Motherwell 1-3 St Johnstone

Sunday December 27, 2009
Hibernian 1-4 Rangers

Wednesday December 30, 2009
Hearts 1-0 Motherwell
Rangers 7-1 Dundee United

Saturday January 2, 2009
Dundee United 0-1 Aberdeen
St Mirren 1-0 Kilmarnock

Sunday January 3, 2009
Celtic 1-1 Rangers
Hibernian 1-1 Hearts

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