SPL Weekend Preview: Celtic to beat Hearts

Walter Smith insists the title race is still wide open, but the last seven days appear to have cleared the way for another Old Firm assault on the Scottish Premier League.

Dundee United and Hibernian have been giving the Glasgow two a run for their money this season, however once Rangers and Celtic get their noses in front of the rest, they tend to stay there.

Hibs were held to a point away to Kilmarnock, while Dundee United took a good point from Hearts but Tuesday’s 3-0 defeat at home to Rangers was the opposite of everything they had to do to stay as creditable challengers.

United were also rocked by the news the Scottish Football Association have now made moves to take Craig Levein away from them, with the intent of installing him as the new Scotland manager.

Candidates are already being named as his successor, with Tannadice legends Paul Sturrock and Paul Hegarty in the frame for a second stint at the job they, in truth, both failed in before.

Jimmy Calderwood and John Collins continue to be linked to any vacancy in Scotland, while ousted Peterborough manager Darren Ferguson would be an ambitious move.

What is certain is that Levein will still be in charge for Dundee United’s trip to face Hamilton. Wherever the Terrors end up this season, they want to at least finish in the European spots, and Levein will be determined to leave them on a high.

Hamilton though are coming off two fantastic results, victories over Hearts and Aberdeen. You could say that’s title winning credentials.

Hoping to emulate Hamilton will be Hibs, who are the next side to take the long road up to Aberdeen. Victory for them would set them up nicely for their crack at Rangers next week.

And what of Rangers – now along with Celtic apparently back on form.

Motherwell at home this week, usually a three point banker, but Motherwell have already returned from Parkhead this season with a point, and held Rangers at home, and could fancy their chances at causing a surprise upset.

The game of the weekend is undoubtedly at Tynecastle, where Hearts face Celtic.

The capital side are not doing too well in the league, however they have a habit of raising themselves for the big games, and have already defeated the Hoops away from home in the League Cup.

Anyone who knows Scottish Football will turn you Celtic get a less than cordial welcome when they visit gorgie, but it is one of the big fixtures in the SPL and one that would be sadly missed should the Old Firm ever up sticks and leave.

With the bottom four also all facing off against each other, it promises to be an electric weekend of football in Scotland. Presuming of course all the games can beat the snow.

Aberdeen v Hibernian

Aberdeen have an injury crisis, with Sone Aluko, Peter Pawlett, Fraser Fyvie, Zander Diamond and Maurice Ross injured, Jerel Ifil banned and Mark Kerr facing a late fitness test.

However, the last time they fielded a badly depleted side was the last time they won – defeating Rangers 1-0.

Hibernian goalkeeper Graham Stack looks set to miss out again, along with Kevin McBride. Striker Derek Riordan should beat illness to make it though.

Has been a strange fixture the past couple of years, something either controversial or uncharacteristically humorous happens in this one.

Here’s to a festive treat.

Prediction: Aberdeen 2-2 Hibernian

Hamilton v Dundee United

Hamilton goalkeeper Tomas Cerny faces a fitness test after being taken off at half-time against Aberdeen last week.

Striker Leon Knight returns from suspension.

Andy Webster returns to the defence for United, Scott Robertson may replace the banned Morgaro Gomis.

Tough week for United while Hamilton are on song. With the home side having their tails up, and the Tannadice men surely desperate to give the possibly departing Levein a great send off, this should be an absolute belter.

Prediction: Hamilton 2-3 Dundee United

Kilmarnock v Falkirk

Lee Robinson could deputise in goal if Mark Brown doesn’t beat illness, with Cammy Bell and Alan Combe already out injured.

Jamie Hamill should recover from a foot infection but fellow midfielder Iain Flannigan (ribs) will not play.

Alex MacDonald has returned to Burnley after a groin injury cut short his loan spell at Falkirk, while Sean Lynch, Mark Stewart, Jackie McNamara, Burton O’Brien and Tam Scobbie remain on the sidelines.

Kilmarnock keep threatening some form, only to let everyone down, so that means they should lose this week, even though they shouldn’t.

Kilmarnock 1-2 Falkirk

Rangers v Motherwell

Rangers goalkeeper Allan McGregor returns from a hamstring injury, meaning manager Walter Smith has a decision to make; to recall him or stick with Neil Alexander who posted clean sheets while deputising.

Midfielder Kevin Thomson has also recovered full fitness, but it is too early for Maurice Edu and Pedro Mendes.

Motherwell have their full squad available.

Motherwell gave Celtic a fright last week, but in truth they were well outplayed. Rangers are on a roll and ready for a tough run of fixtures, and it’s hard to see this being the game that slips them up.

Rangers 3-1 Motherwell

St Johnstone v St Mirren

Defenders Stuart McCaffrey, Danny Grainger and Steven Anderson are all doubts for the home side, who also have Collin Samuel missing for the next six weeks.

St Mirren manager Gus MacPherson has a full team to pick from, save for long-tern casualties Andy Dorman and Allan Johnston.

Both sides will feel this is a winnable game, with the two feeling they’re the better side when on their game. That will no doubt be the pre-match team talks, the result won’t be so predictable.

Prediction: St Johnstone 1-1 St Mirren

Hearts v Celtic (Sunday)

Christian Nade could miss out with a after a stomach problem, and Ian Black and Suso Santana are still banned.

Marius Zaliukas returns to the squad after three months out, and Ismael Bouzid returns from suspension.

Celtic’s Georgios Samaras and Danny Fox are injury doubts while Lee Naylor and Paddy McCourt; all four missed Thursday 3-3 draw with Rapid Vienna.

Niall McGinn will attempt to shake off a dead leg.

Hearts are always up for this game, but Celtic look on form and the goals are flying in at the minute. Will take a great performance from the home side to deny them this weekend.

Prediction: Hearts 1-3 Celtic

by Andrew Southwick, Goal.com

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