Scottish Premiership: How the teams compare ahead of a hectic December fixture list
By Charles Paterson
Last Updated: 04/12/18 10:59am
From top-of-the-table Rangers and resurgent Celtic to struggling Dundee, Sky Sports News' Charles Paterson examines the Scottish Premiership at the start of a hectic December.
With the arrival of the chills of winter, the destination of the Scottish season's first piece of silverware has been confirmed - and it is a familiar one.
Celtic lifted their seventh successive domestic trophy on Sunday, perhaps the first step towards an unprecedented 'triple treble'.
The champions, and the rest, now face the busiest month of the Scottish Premiership season. With one third of the campaign over, December could be where dreams begin to take shape - or are quashed amid a non-stop run of fixtures.
Celtic back to their best
The early season gripes of Brendan Rodgers seem long distant. Four months ago the Celtic manager declined to answer questions about whether the club's ambitions fell short of his own, as his side struggled to find their rhythm. A summer of poor recruitment, a Champions League exit and a sluggish start to their league defence raised questions about Rodgers' relations with the Celtic board and his own long-term future.
Since beating St Johnstone 6-0 on October 7, those questions have been answered emphatically. Celtic have won nine of their 11 matches, scoring 30 goals and conceding just five - three of those to RB Leipzig.
The form of James Forrest, Calum McGregor and Filip Benkovic, and the emergence of Ryan Christie, in particular, have been hugely influential in this improvement. Injuries to Scott Brown and Leigh Griffiths have been weathered - both are now fit, but unable to break into the starting XI. All of a sudden, Celtic look hungry, revitalised and formidable.
Seven league games and a Europa League decider stand between them and a winter break in Dubai. It will not be straightforward - with visits to Easter Road, Pittodrie and Ibrox crammed inside a fortnight either side of Christmas - but if they hit the front at the start of 2019, approaching a transfer window where Rodgers has vowed to strengthen, it's difficult to see Celtic being stopped.
Rangers hit top spot
For the first time in seven years, Rangers are top of the league in December, albeit having played a game more than Celtic. Sunday's win over Hearts was their first at Tynecastle since early 2012, when the club was in administration. For some supporters, the rise to top spot will feel like a seminal moment.
Steven Gerrard knows full well - and he said as much after the game - that leading in December is irrelevant. Rangers are now a target for the rest; how his players handle that pressure will be fascinating to examine in the coming weeks.
Despite a multitude of summer additions, Rangers still lack depth, especially up front. There is an over-reliance on Alfredo Morelos, who's now scored in seven successive league games, and 17 times in total. When the Colombian finds the net, Rangers tend to win - indeed only once this season, against Kilmarnock, have they not been victorious when he's scored.
In the 16 games he has not scored (two of which he was suspended for), Rangers have won only three - and lost four.
More SPFL games on Sky
Sky Sports has added six games to its SPFL schedule from late January through to the end of February.
Gerrard will be praying his star striker avoids injury, but back-up is essential to maintain a challenge. Rangers' next top scorer is full-back - and penalty taker - James Tavernier. Kyle Lafferty has scored only four times since signing from Hearts, while Umar Sadiq has been a huge disappointment. A reliable attacking threat should be Rangers' priority in what Gerrard has hinted will be a quiet transfer window.
Rangers face a similar, perhaps kinder, schedule to Celtic this month, including an awkward trip to St Johnstone and two games with Hibernian, but if they negotiate these, the Old Firm game at Ibrox on December 29 is shaping up to be monumental. Victory that day really would give fans cause to believe in a serious title challenge.
Contenders - and pretenders
Momentum in sport can change rapidly. Hearts strode through the first three months of the season unbeaten, establishing talk of a first title push since 2005/2006. That run was halted by Rangers at Ibrox on October 7 - coincidentally the same day Celtic finally hit their stride - and despite winning their next two matches, Craig Levein's side have picked up only one point from 18 since.
Injuries have undoubtedly hit hard. Uche Ikpeazu's physical presence has been sorely missed leading the line, as have Steven Naismith's predatory skills. John Souttar's injury on international duty was a further blow, and Hearts have not looked like winning a game since.
Christophe Berra's return is a boost, but with four away games this month, Levein will aim to nurse his squad through to the break and take stock. A derby showdown at Easter Road on December 29 is perhaps the last thing on his mind.
The only positive for Levein is that Hibernian are in as bad a slump as their capital rivals. Two points from six games since mid-October is a poor return for a side regarded among the most attractive to watch in the country. During this period, Hibs have only netted four times, after 19 in their first eight league games.
Neil Lennon admitted last week that his side had perhaps "hit a glass ceiling" after the summer losses of John McGinn, Scott Allan and Dylan McGeouch. The club was well compensated from McGinn's sale, but his drive and influence on the park has been a void Hibs have struggled to fill.
With last season's midfield gone, their identity - and consequently results - appears to be suffering. This week Hibs face strugglers St Mirren and Hamilton - two victories would be a timely return to form, as Celtic and Rangers (twice) lie in wait before that festive derby.
As the Edinburgh sides falter, Kilmarnock continue to impress. Steve Clarke is once again proving beyond any doubt his managerial capabilities have been sorely underestimated. Since his arrival 14 months ago, Kilmarnock have only lost seven of 44 league games - picking up 61 points, more than anyone except Celtic.
With a stingy defence and a vibrant attack, led by Eamonn Brophy and the revitalised Greg Stewart, Kilmarnock are a case in point organisation and teamwork will overcome most challenges. They face the bottom four in the league this month, with all signs pointing to their form continuing; European qualification is now a distinct possibility.
St Johnstone have also surged up the table since that aforementioned battering by Celtic in October. Indeed, they have not conceded a goal since, during five wins and a draw. Tommy Wright has managed to evolve his team into a ruthless winning machine, whilst rediscovering the defensive stoutness that stood out during their successive years of European qualification.
Livingston and Aberdeen sit mid-table, but they may soon head in different directions. Livingston's outstanding start to the season has been tempered somewhat in recent weeks, though they began December with another win, and look comfortable enough given the struggles of those below them.
Their form has been built on their defence where they are second only to Celtic in goals conceded, but with the smallest budget in the league, a top-six finish would be a huge achievement in their first year back in the top flight.
Aberdeen must rebound from the disappointment of losing another cup final to Celtic, and try to move closer to the top heading towards the transfer window. Once there, Derek McInnes will hope to add some attacking impetus - Aberdeen have scored more than one goal in only three league matches so far.
The squad's experience invites consistency and a move up the league, but unless there's significant improvement a fifth successive second-placed finish will be a tall order.
Survival of the fittest
Two teams are in danger of being cut adrift at the bottom, and both are still trying to find their feet after changing managers. Dundee ended Neil McCann's tenure in October, but replacement Jim McIntyre has struggled to revitalise a squad he admits will need a serious makeover in January, and he is yet to inspire a win.
St Mirren sacked Alan Stubbs after only four league games, but lost seven of their next eight under Oran Kearney. A win over Hearts, and the addition of the experienced Jimmy Nicholl as coach, has given hope to a club seemingly in constant turmoil since they won the Championship. As it stands, one of these sides looks certain to be relegated.
Ahead of them, Motherwell and Hamilton are producing enough results to stay out of reach. Both have struggled for consistency, but look to have enough in their squads - and in Motherwell's case, recent experience of two cup finals - to suggest they should steer clear.
However, a poor run of results this month could change this picture quickly and suck them back into trouble. History has proven nothing is won - or lost - in December.