What's at stake as the Premiership post-split fixtures get under way?

There's everything to play for as the league enters the final straight.

What’s at stake for clubs in the Premiership post-split fixtures? SNS Group

Last weekend’s drama settled the identity of the Scottish Cup finalists but before Celtic and Rangers can think about their Hampden clash, attention returns to the Premiership and the excitement that the post-split fixtures bring.

The teams have been divided into the top and bottom six but there are still issues to be settled right throughout the table, with the trophy to be earned and relegation still undecided.

Fans have seen the fixture list, now they will get to see how the battles play out and whether the next five games for their side bring joy or dismay.

The title race

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - APRIL 07: Both sets of players come together after a cinch Premiership match between Rangers and Celtic at Ibrox Stadium, on April 07, 2024, in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Craig Foy / SNS Group)

The last clash between Celtic and Rangers didn’t skimp on action, with a blistering opening, six goals, a late leveller and a record television audience. The next could deliver even more spectacle.

With five games to play, three points separate the top two and they have still to meet at Celtic Park.

Holders Celtic have the lead, a better goal difference and the benefit of facing their title rivals on home ground but nobody at Parkhead will be feeling the job is anywhere near done.

Having seen Rangers falter at Dens Park, right off the back of a defeat at Ross County, Celtic’ first post-split fixture is against Dundee at a ground that Philippe Clement’s side toiled on. That’s followed by a home encounter against a Hearts side who were the last to inflict a defeat on Brendan Rodgers’ side when they won 2-0 at Tynecastle in March.

Come through those two games unscathed and, if Rangers stumble over the next two weeks, there could be the opportunity to seal the title when the sides meet on May 11. However, if they drop points while Rangers win, that showdown could tip the balance in favour of the side from Govan.

Rangers were title favourites not too long ago but two disappointing results on the road has left them with an uphill battle. The cup semi-final win over Hearts put the team back on a positive footing and now they aim to keep their title hopes alive in games away to St Mirren on Sunday and at home to Kilmarnock before the Old Firm derby.

Clement and his players still have designs on a domestic treble and the Belgian will be demanding every ounce of energy from his players as they try to bounce back from their dropped points and take top spot. With five games each to play, there’s enough room for any outcome to transpire but with a huge prize at stake, and both teams capable of putting together formidable runs, it could go right down to the wire.

The fight for Europe

Dundee and St Mirren are fighting it out for a European place. (Photo by Rob Casey / SNS Group)

While the top two have a lock on the Champions League places but a focus on the title, the rest of the top half sides have Europe on their minds.

Hearts’ consistency over recent months has seen them establish a grip on third place long ago but that position could be one of the first to be settled mathematically.

Steven Naismith’s side are 11 points ahead of fourth-placed Kilmarnock with 15 to play for. A win at Rugby Park on Saturday would secure their place but even if they don’t take anything from their trip to Ayrshire only a historic collapse would see them miss out on guaranteed group stage football in Europe.

Kilmarnock’s impressive season under Derek McInnes looks certain to have brought his side the reward of continental competition. While leapfrogging Hearts looks nigh on impossible, Killie have the comfort of an eight-point gap on St Mirren and ten points on Dundee. As things stand the Europa League qualifier looks way more likely than Conference League.

Last weekend’s Scottish Cup results meant that fifth place in the Premiership now gets a spot in the Conference League second round qualifiers. That’s set up what looks like a thrilling, and nerve-wracking finale to the season for St Mirren and Dundee.

Two points separate the sides, with the Paisley team on top. Stephen Robinson’s Buddies have the better goal difference but only by five goals and that could easily change over the next five games.

While both are capable of punching above their weight and taking points from the sides above them, the meeting at Dens Park on May 4 looks pivotal.

Best of the rest?

Hibernian boss Nick Montgomery is under pressure to deliver a strong finish to the season. (Photo by Ross MacDonald / SNS Group)

There’s no tangible prize for being the best of the bottom six, bar a small lift in prize money, and for some clubs just being there is the sign of a grim season. But for the teams still in the mix there are clear reasons for striving to be best of the rest.

There are four points between seventh-placed Hibs and ninth-placed Aberdeen, with Motherwell tucked in between.

The Fir Park side would take pride in lifting themselves to seventh after a season that has seen Stuart Kettlewell under severe pressure at times, not least when the team went on a 15-game run without a win.

Things have turned around since and a lift in the league placings would see a positive end to a difficult, often injury-hit, campaign for the Steelmen.

For Hibs and Aberdeen, things are a little different. Expectation is higher at the bigger budget sides, which is why both have had their share of criticism.

Aberdeen’s tumultous time has seen them sack Barry Robson and then part company with Neil Warnock after just a few weeks that failed to bring a league win. Relegation fears have eased but haven’t gone completely, though the trajectory has changed under the interim stewardship of Peter Leven.

The Dons have already announced that Elfsborg boss Jimmy Thelin will join in the summer, so players will be keen to impress knowing that he’s looking on. Rising to the best position they can achieve in the meantime could mean that the Swede takes over a team that has managed to put a dismal season behind them.

Hibs reacted to confirmation of their bottom six status by issuing a statement saying that failing to reach the top half was “simply unacceptable” and that a comprehensive review and evaluation of the football department would be carried out.

The club, who are now on their fourth manager in less than three years, said there was “an understanding” with current boss Nick Montgomery that results had to improve.

You don’t have to be an expert in reading between the lines to conclude that Montgomery’s job is in jeopardy if Hibs have a poor end to the season and a slip further down the table would likely have consequences. The manager isn’t the only one under pressure, with players having their own futures to consider, especially if there’s a change of manager.

The Easter Road side start their post-split fixtures with away games at St Johnstone and Ross County. How those results unfold is certain to have an effect on the mood ahead of home games against Aberdeen and Motherwell.

Beating the drop

DINGWALL, SCOTLAND - APRIL 14: Ross County Interim Manager Don Cowie during a cinch Premiership match between Ross County and Rangers at the Global Energy Stadium, on April 14, 2024, in Dingwall, Scotland. (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)SNS Group

As noted, Aberdeen could still be looking over their shoulder if things go badly but the fight to retain Premiership status looks to be focused on three clubs now. The picture could be even clearer after the first round of post-split games this weekend.

To state the obvious: Livingston look all but down. Manager David Martindale has said things have looked bleak and the position all but insurmountable for a while now.

Defeat to Ross County at home on Saturday would seal their fate and see Livingston in the Championship next season. Martindale gave the players a week off during the break for the Scottish Cup semi-finals to allow for “a reset” but there’s little evidence that the series of results that would save the club have any likelihood of transpiring. After years of upsetting the odds, Martindale will now have to start thinking about a promotion bid next season.

That leaves what looks to be a two-horse race for the safety of tenth place, with Ross County and St Johnstone battling to avoid the play-off spot and the pressure of having to beat an in-form Championship side to stay in the division.

County trail the Perth Saints by a point but results under interim boss Don Cowie have given the Staggies plenty of hope that they can get out of a tight spot.

Seven points from their last five games, including home wins over Hearts and Rangers, show the danger they can pose. The fixture list gives them the three highest-ranked sides: Motherwell, Aberdeen and Hibernian, will all be played in Dingwall, but the head-to-head with St Johnstone at McDiarmid Park on May 15 might be a straight shoot-out for safety.

Craig Levein’s St Johnstone won’t put too much weight on their slender lead over County. Seven defeats from the last ten games show the team can’t take any point for granted over the next month.

They begin their run-in with the visit of Hibernian before trips to Pittodrie and the Tony Macaroni Arena. A good return from those three games would build momentum and ensure County travel south with a bit of trepidation for their second-last match.

Five match days remain and on each of them a key issue could be settled, or the stakes could rise. There’s a title to play for, European places to finalise, relegation matters to be decided and the futures of players and managers all likely to be affected.

Drama is almost guaranteed and the run-in starts here.

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