Scottish Premiership: Things to watch this weekend

By Clive LindsayBBC Sport Scotland
Scottish Premiership things to watch

If it hadn't been for Thursday's sacking of Jack Ross as Hibernian head coach, nearly all the spotlight of this weekend's Scottish Premiership card would have been on Sunday.

That's when four of the top five are in direct opposition, with leaders Rangers visiting third-top Heart of Midlothian and second-placed Celtic entertaining Motherwell.

Now, though, Hibs' trip to face similarly off-form St Mirren will have more than normal attention on Saturday.

Here's what to look out for this weekend...

Bottom sides on the up

Dundee left stunned by their 5-0 defeat by Ross County
Ross County stunned Dundee 5-0 at Dens Park in their last meeting

Perversely, Ross County's 5-0 thumping of Dundee at Dens Park appears to have helped both sides in their bids to move clear of relegation trouble.

Not surprisingly, it proved to be a boost to the confidence for Malky Mackay's side and they have lost just once in their subsequent four outings and are unbeaten in their latest three - gathering more points in those than the previous 10. Albeit they are still three points adrift of St Johnstone at the bottom of the table as the Perth side entertain Aberdeen.

Dundee responded with a run of three wins in four before last weekend's defeat away to leaders Rangers, form which has lifted them up to third bottom and five clear of Saturday's hosts, although they have played a game more.

County's recent run appears to have been built on a more conservative approach - three goals being scored in their most recent three games compared to 21 in the four previous.

Meanwhile, Dundee's improvement has coincided with the emergence of Danny Mullen as their main striker, the 26-year-old scoring a goal in three consecutive games up until coming up against a Rangers defence tightened up by new manager Giovanni van Bronckhorst.

Clash of foes in freefall

Jack Ross and Hibernian coach David Gray
Jack Ross' exit from Hibernian leaves coach David Gray in charge

After their midweek defeat by Livingston, travelling to face Ross' former club, St Mirren, was always going to be a significant game even before Hibs decided to terminate the head coach's contract.

Two wins in 10 outings, only one of those victories in the league, and the Edinburgh side have slipped to seventh and trail badly in the race for European places.

Not even a thrilling Scottish League Cup semi-final win over Rangers and the final against Celtic to come on 19 December could save Ross' job given such relegation form.

Now, without their team boss, and two key defenders after midweek red cards for captain Paul Hanlon and Paul McGinn, they head to Paisley, where a defeat would lift their hosts above them in the table.

However, whereas Hibs' four points from those nine games is fewer than any other side - and half that of the next worst - shot-shy St Mirren's eight games without a win is the longest current run by any Premiership side.

Jim Goodwin's side drew 2-2 at Easter Road in September, but they have lost five games in a row against Hibs on their own patch, haven't beaten them in 10 overall and will be wary of the new manager bounce as former captain now coach David Gray takes temporary charge for the first time.

Can Hearts reignite challenge against leaders?

Oliver Bozinac celebrates scoring Hearts' February winner over Rangers
Hearts knocked Rangers out of the Scottish Cup on their last visit to Tynecastle in February

There's no argument about the game of the weekend as third-top Hearts entertain reigning champions Rangers, who arrive on a high again after Thursday's Europa League draw away to group winners Lyon extended Van Bronckhorst's unbeaten run since becoming manager.

Having already qualified for the knock-out stage as runners-up, the Dutchman was even able to rest some of his top players as Rangers added to four wins in a row under their new boss with a 1-1 draw which leaves them unbeaten in six away from home in all competitions.

If anyone other than Celtic have the ability to halt that run, it must be a Hearts side who remain unbeaten at home in 10 games in all competitions this season and who drew 1-1 at Ibrox in October to remain unbeaten against Rangers in three meetings.

However, having lost at Celtic Park earlier this month, albeit by a single goal, a win is a must if Robbie Neilson's side are to have any chance of living up to sporting director Joe Savage's October suggestion that they could be title challengers.

Their ability to do so could depend on whether Liam Boyce is clear of the injury and form problems after the Northern Ireland striker's first goal in eight games in last weekend's win over Livingston.

Striking difference at Celtic Park

Celtic's Kyogo Furuhashi is injured against Real Betis
Kyogo Furuhashi's injury against Real Betis is a concern for Celtic

Celtic should also be full of confidence after ending their own Europa League group campaign with a 3-2 dead-rubber win over an admittedly weakened Real Betis with a completely new, and youthful, starting line-up of their own.

However, having decided to replace the injured Albian Ajeti with top scorer Kyogo Furuhashi only for the Japan striker to also be forced off, manager Ange Postecoglou could have a dilemma on his hands over who to play up front during a busy December schedule that the Australian railed against after the match.

Fifth-top Motherwell have no such concerns and, in Tony Watt, they have the Premiership's top scorer, his nine league strikes earning his side 11 points, the most of any player in their season's competition, to push the 27-year-old's case for a Scotland recall.

Watt has, though, never scored against his former club in seven league matches. Indeed, Well have lost nine in a row against the Glasgow side - 11 consecutively at Celtic Park since their last victory there almost exactly six years ago. It's 21 games in all since that win.

Graham Alexander's side arrive this time having lost just once in five outings, but Celtic's run is even more impressive. Thursday's win was their fourth in a row in all competitions, they are seven undefeated at home and have won eight of their last nine league games, including their latest four, to pick up more home points than any other side this season.

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