Scottish Premiership: Celtic vs Rangers, the race for third & relegation struggles | Football News

The international break offers respite in the frantic Scottish domestic campaign but season-defining moments are upon us and there will be plenty to play for when the Premiership reconvenes on April 1.

Michael Beale’s unbeaten league start to his time as Rangers boss has failed to halt a relentless Celtic side who remain nine points clear at the top of the table with nine games remaining. Rangers must win both Old Firm matches – the first of which is on April 8, live on Sky Sports, – and hope their Glasgow rivals slip up elsewhere if they are to take the title race down to the wire.

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - SEPTEMBER 03: Ryan Kent and Liel Abada in action nduring a cinch Premiersip match between Celtic and Rangers at Celtic Park, on September 03, 2022, in Glasgow, Scotland.  (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)
Celtic and Rangers will meet again at Celtic Park on April 8

But there are compelling matters to settle outside of Glasgow, perhaps most notably in the capital where it had been assumed that Hearts were almost guaranteed to secure a third-place finish but three defeats in four league matches has allowed Hibernian back into the race, with the likelihood of two Edinburgh derbies to come.

A resurgent Aberdeen may well pip both to that third spot, however, with interim boss Barry Robson steadying the ship following Jim Goodwin’s departure and doing his chances of landing the job on a permanent basis no harm.

Livingston and St Mirren remain outside bets for those European spots, with both enjoying fine campaigns thus far that would be capped by at least a top six finish and a welcome cash boost going into the summer transfer window.

Things are also beginning to look very interesting at the bottom of the table.

Stuart Kettlewell has impressed so far at Motherwell

Stuart Kettlewell has seemingly steered Motherwell away from relegation danger, alongside St Johnstone, leaving Kilmarnock, Ross County and Dundee United to battle it out to avoid the drop.

Can Jim Goodwin find the points needed to secure United’s top-flight status? Do Kilmarnock have enough squad depth to avoid an immediate return to the Championship?

Sky Sports News looks at all the key questions facing the Scottish Premiership as the domestic season heads for another thrilling conclusion.

Title race over?

In most other seasons Beale’s appointment would have heralded the start of a miraculous transformation at the top of the table which re-shaped the nature of the title race in the Premiership.

Indeed, Rangers could hit the 100-point mark – which would have been enough to top the table in every season with the exception of three since the turn of the century – and still come up short in the title race.

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Highlights of the last Old Firm in the Scottish Premiership this season as Celtic drew 2-2 at Rangers

Celtic have been relentless this term under Ange Postecoglou, dropping just five points all season. Rangers and Celtic have gone blow for blow every matchday since the dismissal of Giovanni van Bronckhorst with neither giving an inch thus far.

Postecoglou’s side have not wavered in the face of Rangers’ much improved consistency and could themselves better the points haul amassed by Brendan Rodgers’ invincibles side in 2017.

Rangers will have a chance to make up for their lacklustre League Cup final display at the end of next month with a return to Hampden in the Scottish Cup semi-final where they will bid to put the brakes on Celtic’s treble charge.

Celtic's Daizen Maeda celebrates as he makes it 1-0
Celtic’s Daizen Maeda celebrates putting his side ahead against Rangers in January

Before that, however, they have an opportunity to ask the question of Celtic ahead of the split when the two sides meet at Parkhead on April 8, live on Sky Sports. The hosts will be looking to provide an emphatic answer which would all but put the seal on their title defence.

Race for third place

Hearts were 10 points clear of Aberdeen at the beginning of February, with third place and a likely European group spot all seemingly wrapped up. But a glitch seems to have set in over in Gorgie.

Robbie Neilson’s side have lost four out of their last five in all competitions and, with Aberdeen picking up three wins on the bounce, including an emphatic 3-0 victory over the Jambos before the international break, that deficit has been reduced to just four points.

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Highlights of Aberdeen’s 3-0 win over Hearts in the battle for third

Hibernian have lost their last two to both halves of the Old Firm but Lee Johnson’s side have definitely seen an upturn in form since their Scottish Cup exit to Hearts in late January. They host their Edinburgh rivals at Easter Road on April 15, in what could prove to be a vital encounter in the race for third.

That third spot in the league would likely mean Europa Conference League group stage football at the very least, with a place in Europa League qualifying preceding it.

The winners of the Scottish Cup are handed a place in Europa League qualifying, with a drop into Conference League group stages from there if that side is unsuccessful in navigating the early rounds. Given that Rangers and Celtic are favourites for the Scottish Cup and have already booked a European berth each then that Scottish Cup winning place would go to the team that finishes third in the league.

The team finishing in fourth would go into qualifying for the Conference League.

Fixtures ahead of the Premiership split

Hearts: Kilmarnock (a) St Mirren (h) Hibernian (a) Ross County (h)
Aberdeen: St Johnstone (a) Kilmarnock (h) Ross County (a) Rangers (h)
Hibernian: Motherwell (h) Dundee United (a) Hearts (h) St Johnstone (a)
Livingston: St Mirren (a) Motherwell (a) St Johnstone (h) Dundee United (a)
St Mirren: Livingston (h) Hearts (a) Rangers (a) Kilmarnock (h)

Sky Sports pundit Andy Walker thinks Hearts will still seal third place and a likely return to European group stage football – but says there is still work to do for Neilson’s side.

“I think there’s a little bit of doubt about Hearts cementing their place as third best in the league,” he said. “They’re five points in front of Hibs, they’ve still got them to play a couple of times. They’re four in front of Aberdeen who seem to be on a bit of a resurgence under Barry Robson. There’s still a bit of work to do.

Hibs' Josh Campbell celebrates after scoring to make it 2-0
Hibs are aiming to chase down Edinburgh rivals Hearts in third place

“I do still think Hearts have the strongest squad and I expect them to see it out, but I think it’ll be interesting to see how it’s played out over the coming weeks.”

Aberdeen’s 3-0 win over Hearts at Pittodrie before the break catapulted the Dons back into serious contention for third. After the chaotic final days of Jim Goodwin’s time in charge – which included heavy defeats to both Edinburgh sides – Robson has quietly re-established Aberdeen as a credible force in the race for Europe.

Duk’s four goals since Robson took charge have been invaluable, with the 23-year-old thriving under the interim boss. He will be a key player going into the final weeks of the season if the Dons are to catch Hearts and potentially land Robson the job on a permanent basis.

“I think it’s understandable what’s happening at Aberdeen,” Walker added. “When you had the uncertainty with Dave Cormack and his health, that fact that they brought in a new chief executive in Alan Burrows, I think it’s been sensible to buy themselves some time and in that time Barry Robson can’t do much more.

Can Barry Robson lead Aberdeen into Europe?

“I think he’s impressed everyone with what he’s got a tune out of the players that were vastly underperforming. Who knows, he may well get the job before the end of the season. I think the players would probably like that, they’ve already reacted well to him.

“If they can get their recruitment right again this summer then you want to see Aberdeen, your big city club, doing the best they can and being up there with Hearts and getting the occasional victory over Celtic or Rangers just to ensure that the league is really strong.”

The battle for the top six?

With Livingston sitting just a point behind Hibs in the table it would be wrong to discount David Martindale’s side from the race for Europe. The Livi boss has spoken in the past of his dream of bringing European football back to West Lothian but admitted in December that “the goal’s to stay in the league and try and finish in the top six”.

St Mirren boss Stephen Robinson (R) and Livingston manager Davie Martindale
St Mirren boss Stephen Robinson (R) and Livingston manager David Martindale are battling it out for the top six

But why not aim higher? Livingston have been a consistent presence in the top half of the league under Martindale, with the 48-year-old continuing to overperform given the club’s budget. Their four fixtures before the split are all winnable and positive results there could propel them further into the continental conversation.

Walker thinks, however, that Livi may be more involved in a shootout for that final top six berth with St Mirren. The two sides meet when the league reconvenes on April 1.

Stephen Robinson’s side have been impressive, especially at home, and remain the only team to beat Celtic domestically this season. And the Sky Sports pundit thinks the prize money on offer for a top half finish would be vital for the Buddies.

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Sky Sports pundit Andy Walker believes VAR is not helping referees after a weekend of controversy in the Scottish Premiership.

“I think one of them will get in [to the top six]. You’re looking at Celtic, Rangers, Hibs, Hearts and Aberdeen then it’s between St Mirren and Livingston.

“I know they play after the international break, that will be a massive game and it will have a big impact on who might just clinch that top six spot. It’s vital for them. I don’t think St Mirren have ever been in the top six, the idea of them going up against the big boys and getting that extra bit of money would obviously serve them well in the summer transfer window.”

Relegation – who will beat the drop?

Despite rallying at the turn of the year Dundee United’s run of one point from eight games saw Liam Fox leave his role at Tannadice. That slump sees United prop up the table once more having lost key fixtures against direct rivals Kilmarnock and Ross County in recent weeks.

DUNDEE, SCOTLAND - MARCH 04: Dundee United manager Jim Goodwin looks dejected at full time during a cinch Premiership match between Dundee United and Aberdeen at Tannadice Park, on March 04, 2023, in Dundee, Scotland.  (Photo by Mark Scates / SNS Group)
Can Dundee United manager Jim Goodwin steer his side to safety?

Motherwell and St Johnstone seem to have pulled themselves clear leaving those three teams to battle it out ahead of the split. None appear to have a particularly kind run of fixtures before that. United return from the international break with a visit to Ibrox, Ross County welcome Celtic on April 2 and Kilmarnock will meet Hearts, Aberdeen and the league leaders ahead of the split.

None of the sides can claim to be in any sort of form. Ross County’s win over Dundee United nearly a month ago was the last time any of the sides picked up three points. The head-to-head matches after the split will be crucial but any points picked up over the next four games – either to create a gap to the bottom two spots, or to keep up with those around them – will be crucial.

Fixtures before the Premiership split

Kilmarnock: Hearts (h) Aberdeen (a) Celtic (h) St Mirren (a)
Ross County: Celtic (h) St Johnstone (a) Aberdeen (h) Hearts (a)
Dundee United: Rangers (a) Hibernian (h) Motherwell (a) Livingston (h)

Relegation would be a significant blow for United and could have ramifications in the long term, with reports in the Scottish media last month that Tayside businessmen were exploring a bid to buy the club.

Jim Goodwin may have been scarred by his Aberdeen exit but he will not have much time to reflect on his Pittodrie spell as United need to start amassing points quickly or they could be cut adrift at the bottom of the table.

Derek McInnes is more used to challenging at the other end of the Premiership with Aberdeen but did miraculously rescue Bristol City from the drop from the English Championship back in 2012 against all odds. He will need to call on all his experience now.

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Highlights of the Scottish Premiership match between Kilmarnock and St Johnstone.

Kilmarnock are the only side in the division yet to win away from home and have managed to score just six goals on the road all season. That may need to change if Killie are to avoid an immediate return to the Championship. McInnes may sense an opportunity against an out of form Hearts side at Rugby Park on April 1, especially while United and County face the Old Firm the same weekend.

Ross County failed to pick up a point in March but will be buoyed by their recent results against Dundee United (4-0) and Kilmarnock (3-0) since the turn of the year. That kind of form will hold them in good stead in the post-split fixtures.

However, County need goals – only Kilmarnock have scored fewer than them this season and Malky Mackay’s side are the team with the lowest number of shots, and shots on target, in the league this term.

Eamonn Brophy failed to find the net for St Mirren in the first half of the season but the striker has hit three goals in six games since moving to Dingwall on loan and Andy Walker thinks he could prove to be the difference maker for Mackay in one of the tightest relegation battles in years.

Ross County's Eamonn Brophy celebrates scoring to make it 1-0 during a cinch Premiership match against Kilmarnock
How important could Eamonn Brophy’s goals be for Ross County in the run-in?

“I think St Johnstone and Motherwell have got enough to keep out of the bottom two places,” Walker said. “I think it’s any two from three. Kilmarnock, Ross County and Dundee United have still got a bit to do so every point will be a prisoner between now and the end of the season.

“Clearly Dundee United have to get some run of form going because they’re the team that are struggling badly at the moment. I can see any of the three of them finishing third from bottom, they’ve all got strong squads.

“Ross County struggle to score goals, but since bringing in Eamonn Brophy they seem to be a different team. Kilmarnock’s home form will always give them a bit of comfort, it’s been terrific all season. Dundee United will surely get a lift from Jim Goodwin coming in and Steven Fletcher is beginning to score goals. It’s going to be a really close call between now and the end of the season.”

Scottish Premiership fixtures live on Sky Sports

Sunday April 2: Ross County vs Celtic, kick-off 12pm

Saturday April 8: Celtic vs Rangers, kick-off 12.30pm

Sunday April 9: Dundee United vs Hibernian, kick-off 12pm

Friday April 14: Ross County vs Aberdeen, kick-off 7.45pm

Sunday April 16: Kilmarnock vs Celtic, kick-off 12pm

Saturday April 22: Hearts vs Ross County, kick-off 12.30pm

Sunday April 23: Aberdeen vs Rangers, kick-off 4.30pm

Scottish Premiership & SWPL on Sky Sports

Sky Sports will broadcast the Scottish Premiership and Scottish Women's Premier League
Sky Sports will broadcast the Scottish Premiership and Scottish Women’s Premier League

Sky Sports – This season up to 48 cinch Premiership games will be available across Sky Sports’ flagship channels, including Sky Sports Football and Sky Sports Main Event, plus at least five SWPL matches. From 2024/25, up to 60 cinch Premiership will be live on Sky Sports, in addition to the SWPL.

Sky Sports News – Running 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Scottish football fans can enjoy Sky Sports News’ (channel 409) rolling editorial coverage of the cinch Premiership and SWPL throughout the season.

Sky Sports Digital – Follow all the latest from Scottish football across and app, including exclusive features and interviews, plus dedicated live blog coverage, in-game clips from matches live on Sky Sports and free highlights.

Sky Sports Social – Alongside coverage and visibility for the league across all Sky Sports’ main social media channels, the bespoke Twitter channel @ScotlandSky will continue to be the home of all Scottish football content on Sky Sports.

Highlights show – Tune in for a dedicated round-up from the cinch Premiership every week on Sky Sports Football.

To download the Sky Sports app click here, to visit Sky Sports website click here.

Sky Sports is the home of domestic football in the UK and Ireland, with more than 400 games per season across the SPFL, SWPL, Premier League, WSL, and EFL.