|Scottish Championship: Alloa Athletic v Dundee|
|Venue: Indodrill Stadium Date: Friday, 19 March Time: 19:45 GMT|
|Coverage: Watch live on BBC Scotland and on the BBC Sport website and app.|
Even in this Covid-stricken, shortened season, the Scottish Championship is shaping up to be one of the most fiercely contested divisions in the UK.
Eight of the 10 teams could still sneak into the promotion play-offs, with only nine points separating second-placed Dunfermline from ninth-placed Arbroath.
But who is coming into these last seven games in the best form? Can anyone catch Hearts? And why is the Championship so close on a regular basis?
Hearts on their way
The intrigue is mainly focussed around the play-off, rather than title race, because Hearts are 15 points clear at the summit. But is it really that assured that Robbie Neilson’s men will clinch an instant return to the Premiership?
A fitful run of form at the beginning of the year and some less-than-ideal football on display prompted noises of concern. Since then though, Hearts have gone a run of eight games unbeaten, and despite having played more games than their closest rivals, will win the league barring a spectacular collapse.
The play-off front-runners
Craig Wighton has three goals in as many games since joining Dunfermline from Hearts
Dunfermline are the current front-runners to claim the first of three play-off places. Stevie Crawford recruited smartly to add proven Championship quality in Declan McManus from Ross County, Kevin O’Hara from Alloa, and most recently Craig Wighton of Hearts.
And, although their form has been somewhat patchy since the turn of the year, with two games in hand they look a good bet to at least remain in the play-offs come May.
Raith Rovers are also well placed. After promotion via a points-per-game calculation when last season ended, you’d be forgiven for thinking the Fifers would struggle to make a mark on the division.
However, John McGlynn’s side have been one of the standout teams with their attractive style of play. Their form has dipped recently, with no win in three, and while most would agree their play has deserved more, merit doesn’t get you three points at Gayfield or the Indodrill.
Dundee are the last side currently occupying the play-off places. Nothing has seemed easy the last few years at Dens Park and this season hasn’t bucked that trend. James McPake’s side are still in a good position, but they must improve their away form having won just once on the road all season.
Making a late charge
Queen of the South are the form team in the division. Allan Johnston’s men won only one of their first nine games, but their 3-2 defeat by Alloa last Saturday ended a five-game unbeaten run, with Dunfermline and Dundee among the four sides they beat in that spell.
Buoyed by the addition of Dapo Mebude on loan from Rangers, Queens are now a serious threat for the rest of the division. Statistically they have the third-best attack and second-worst defence, so entertainment is a guarantee.
Having taking compassionate leave at the end of February, Inverness Caledonian Thistle boss John Robertson has passed the mantle to Neil McCann. His arrival did not bring a new-manager spring, with the Highlanders achieving their first win in seven on Tuesday.
But despite their poor run of form they sit just three points off the final play-off berth.
Queens have only lost two of their last 11 games
Looking over their shoulders
Morton’s managerial change was forced upon them with David Hopkin offering to resign in a “selfless act” amid financial problems at the club. The 50-year old former Scotland midfielder is now at Championship rivals Ayr United.
Morton have replaced Hopkin with former St Mirren manager Gus MacPherson until the end of the season and both clubs will be hoping for an impact. Ayr have already had one, with Hopkin earning his first win against Dundee at Dens.
Trying to hang on
Arbroath are defying the odds once again this season. Dick Campbell’s part-time team are most likely more concerned with survival but are only six points away from upsetting the apple cart.
They put together an eight-game unbeaten run to begin the year having finished 2020 rock bottom, so who’s to say that couldn’t go on another run?
As for Alloa, they have looked marooned for most of this term but Saturday’s win over Queen of the South has boosted hope for Peter Grant’s men. It’s an uphill battle but not unassailable. They’re currently four points adrift of the relegation play-off place, which might be their best hope.
Why is it so close?
Hamilton fans remember penalty shoot out play-off victory against Hibs 2014
Ever since the leagues were rebranded in 2013 and the post season play-offs were introduced, teams finishing in those spots at either end of the table have tended to stay in the division.
Only five teams that have exited the division via the play-offs and only two of those have been promotions; Hamilton in 2013/14 and Livingston in 2017/18.
The presence of Rangers (two seasons), Hearts (two seasons), Hibernian (three seasons), and Dundee United (four seasons) in the division, plus a built-in advantage for the Premiership team in the play-offs has helped keep the current crop in the second tier.
That means that a lot of clubs’ resources remain at the same level, and many draw very similar crowds so there are no dominant sides.
The majority of the division are also fighting over a small pool of professional players in Scotland, so fishing in the same pond means squad abilities are also comparable.