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The Championship at halfway

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hislopsoffsideagain

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Aside from a game between Morton and Queen of the South that needs rescheduled, the Scottish Championship has reached its halfway point. Eighteen games down, eighteen to go.

It would be a stretch to say there is a title race.

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Thirteen points clear with eighteen games left? Surely Dundee United can't blow this.

United haven't been perfect (their three defeats include a loss to Alloa and a 4-0 trouncing in Dumfries) but they have been close enough. At the time of writing they've won nine straight. Obviously having Lawrence Shankland helps - he has nineteen league goals already and has broken into the Scotland setup - but this United team is miles ahead in every area compared to the ones that have stunk up this division for the last three years. Once they get in front they have enough backbone and street smarts to see out games and pick off opponents at will. Aside from Shankland, Mark Reynolds and Calum Butcher have been particularly outstanding.

Therefore the teams immediately below are realistically battling for the three playoff spots; getting second place and a 'bye week' could make a significant difference to a club's chances of promotion via this route.

It's Caley Thistle who currently have a little bit of breathing space here. Not that they have been overly impressive - three teams have scored more and three have conceded fewer - but they've been a little less inconsistent than the rest.

Crucially their last three home games have been victories against the three clubs immediately below them in the table, and with clean sheets to boot. That suggests that the backline is returning to form after a shaky autumn. Their problem remains a lack of goals. They've scored more than two in a game only once and no individual has managed more than four in the league. Finding a reliable forward would cement that second spot. Certainly you would fancy them to reach the playoffs again though.

Next up are Ayr United who started like greased lightning with six wins out of seven but have hit the skids dreadfully since Ian McCall upped and left for Partick Thistle. His rookie replacement Mark Kerr hasn't been helped by a small squad incapacitated by injuries but its remarkable they are currently third given they've won just one of the last six.

Unless they can reinforce considerably in January they are unlikely to stay there, especially as Kerr himself intends to hang up his boots next month. With other veterans such as Michael Moffat, Steven Bell and Andy Geggan looking past their best it could be tough going forward.

In contrast Dundee will feel they are in the ascendancy now - and about time too, given this team can boast Kane Hemmings and Danny Johnson up front and Graham Dorrans in midfield. If one was being generous it could be said that manager James McPake had to gel together several new players, but the bottom line is that the Dark Blues are performing remarkably like their neighbours in the last few years - playing down to the opposition, often relying on talent rather than tactics to do the business.

Still, they've won their last two and got into the top four. Their next three matches are against the trio currently above them, starting with the Boxing Day derby. A positive result at Tannadice would do wonders for confidence, not least because the two derby defeats so far have wrecked confidence for weeks afterward. The bottom line though is that anything other than a top four finish would be an embarrassment.

Dunfermline have dropped back to fifth after a recent purple patch had put them into the top four. But they'll take that given Stevie Crawford looked under a fair bit of pressure when they won only one of their first eight league games.

The turnaround has been mostly down to the outrageous form of striker Kevin Nisbet, who before last weekend's loss in Inverness had scored twelve in seven league games. If he can keep finding the net and the Pars can get the best out of midfield loan trio Greg Kiltie, Harry Cochrane and Anthony McDonald then they will be playoff-bound.

I was actually surprised when I looked at the table to find Queen of the South up in sixth. Whilst they've had some impressive wins (such as the aforementioned drubbing of the league leaders) they've only won back-to-back games once. Has Stephen Dobbie begun to fade at last? The 37 year old has only five league goals so far this season. However the club have just given him another new contract and his acumen still looks plenty sharp for this level.

The Doonhamers are another team who have a relatively small squad that struggles to deal with any injuries. An optimist would say they are still in the playoff race but they are closer to ninth than fourth and an injury to Dobbie would cripple them.

I was also taken aback to see Arbroath down in seventh. Only six weeks ago they were in a playoff spot after crushing ICT at home but that might have been their ceiling. Since then they are winless. That shouldn't distract from the remarkable job Dick Campbell and co have done this season with a squad of gnarly part-time veterans from the lower divisions. They have gone toe-to-toe with everyone.

And yet they could still be pulled into a relegation battle. There's always a risk that the semi-pros will run out of batteries towards the end of a long season. But these guys have been around the block often enough to deserve the benefit of the doubt.

Just above the bottom two are Morton who will have probably had higher expectations than this when they appointed David Hopkin as manager. Perhaps its true he wasn't the brains of the operation at Livingston? Morton's home form is the reason they are this high; only last weekend did they pick up their first away league win.

There's plenty of experience in Greenock with Jim McAlister, Chris Millar, Brian McLean and John Sutton amongst those playing significant roles. But few of the youngsters have pushed on and their two most prestigious summer signings, Aidan Nesbitt and Robbie Muirhead, have struggled. They need top scorer Bob McHugh to bounce back from a hamstring injury asap.

Whatever former boss Gary Caldwell claims about putting together a squad capable of promotion, pre-contract moves for Ayr's Ross Docherty and QOS's Darren Brownlie tell you that Partick Thistle have no aspirations for this season beyond getting the hell out of the basement and retaining their Championship status.

Sixteen points from twelve games under McCall is certainly progress but expect Thistle to be very busy in January strengthening the squad and trying to move on some of Caldwell's duds.

And finally we have Alloa. Staying up last season was a minor miracle for the Wasps but repeating the feat will be very tough. Peter Grant has done a solid job succeeding Jim Goodwin in charge and they've not been pushovers by any means. But four straight defeats has seen them plunge to the bottom.

Grant was quite prudent in the summer and it will be interesting to see if there is much squad turnover in January. Certainly if Alloa are going to survive they need to bring in new players, though they will remain tough opponents regardless.

So here are my predictions for how it'll finish...and how confident I am about said predictions:

PROMOTED
Dundee United (would bet my mortgage on it)

PROMOTION PLAYOFFS
Inverness CT (very confident)
Dundee (very confident)
Dunfermline (wouldn't put money on it)

RELEGATION PLAYOFFS
Morton (not confident at all - could see Arbroath, QOS, Partick all ending up here)

RELEGATED
Alloa (pretty confident but they've proven us wrong before!)


Lawrie Spence has whinged about Scottish football on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007. He has a life outside this blog. Honestly.

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