Sunday, October 18, 2009
Chasing the Old Firm
While the debate rages on about whether the Old Firm should or shouldn't quit Scotland some of the focus has shifted on to who will finish third this term. Some supporters are even beginning to dream that their team could win the championship if Rangers and Celtic were ever to leave the Scottish Premier League.
So just who will come out on top to claim third spot north of the border this season?
Two of the challengers clashed at the weekend when Aberdeen and Hearts drew 1-1 at Pittodrie. Neither side showed their best form although the home team did at least promise more in attack than in the majority of their previous outings.
Dons boss Mark McGhee is slowly starting to place his stamp on the team having succeeded Jimmy Calderwood in the summer. McGhee has taken a gamble on teens Fraser Fyvie and Peter Pawlett while Michael Paton is also now a top team regular at just 20. The young trio are beginning to reward their manager with some encouraging displays.
Pawlett and Paton have added a fresh injection of enthusiasm and pace to the Dons in the final third. Lee Miller was again handed the role of lone striker against Hearts but was well supported by Pawlett and Paton.
McGhee has changed the way Aberdeen play since taking over and his troops finally seem to understand what is expected of them. But if Aberdeen are going to win the race to finish third then a lot rests on the performances of Miller. McGhee will be heartened by the fact his main striker netted his first of the season against Hearts but he'll need to stay on the goal trail if the Dons are going to be the best of the rest.
Rising star Fyvie might only be 16 but he certainly doesn't look overawed at being Aberdeen's principal creative force in the centre of midfield. He's comfortable on the ball and clearly has the ability to become a major player for the Dons although McGhee will be well aware his starlets may well need to be rested in certain games.
Pawlett impressed in flashes against Hearts and helped to create the opening goal and the first strike of the season for Lee Miller. His pass found its way to Paton via Charlie Mulgrew and the young winger's cross picked out a grateful Miller who converted the opening goal just before the interval.
That should have provided Aberdeen with the impetus to further dominate the game but they couldn't kill off Hearts. Andrew Driver levelled for Csaba Laszlo's men after the break when he slotted home a neat pass from Christian Nade to earn his side a point.
The Edinburgh side probably merited a draw and could have snatched all three points late on but for an excellent Jamie Langfield save from an Ismael Bouzid header and a horror miss from David Obua.
But McGhee reckons his men missed out on the chance of a victory that would have drawn them level on points with fifth placed Motherwell.
McGhee said: "We created more chances against Hearts than we've done in any game all season. It's the first time the team has looked the way I've wanted but we're disappointed not to have won.
"We're delighted Lee Miller got his goal as he's been desperately in need of one. Hopefully that's the start of him scoring this season. Lee deserved his goal and being picked for Scotland to play against Japan has been good for him and has boosted his confidence.
"I don't think Hearts deserved their goal. We were the better of the two teams and deserved to win."
McGhee will now be looking for a victory in Saturday's New Firm derby with Dundee United at Pittodrie to further bolster their third place credentials.
Meanwhile, Laszlo will have been pleased with the draw and the fact his returning star midfielder impressed in the closing stages. The Tynecastle boss and Laryea Kingston have been at loggerheads following a club v country clash. Kingston went against Laszlo's wishes by joining up with his Ghana international team-mates last month despite not being full fit.
That resulted in him being hit with a fine of four weeks' wages but Kingston now appears to be playing his way back in the picture. And he looked particularly dangerous in the closing stages of the Aberdeen game so could yet win a start when Hearts host Falkirk this weekend.
Youngster Craig Thomson featured at right back and again impressed with Laszlo fearing a big club could lodge a bid for him in the January transfer window. Scotland cap Lee Wallace looked reasonably solid at left back while skipper Michael Stewart was again expected to pull the strings in midfield.
If Stewart and Kingston can again forge a strong partnership it could hold the key to a Hearts charge for third spot. Driver will also have an influential role to play but with Premier League side Burnley monitoring his situation January could be a worrying month for the Maroons.
But for now Laszlo is still mulling over what might have been had his forwards had their shooting boots on at Pittodrie.
Laszlo said: "I think we should have won, especially with the pressure we had in the closing stages. We are getting better and better. We had some good chances, especially in the first 10 minutes. David Obua will have to watch the game to see how many chances he missed.
"We had some chances in the last 20 minutes. We want to play nice football but it must also be successful. I want my players to have more confidence."
Both Aberdeen and Hearts have the potential to clinch that coveted third place but will have to beat off strong competition from Motherwell, Hibs and Dundee United.
Whichever team emerges strongest from the hectic fixtures over the festive period could well win the intriguing battle.