How to Qualify for Europe – An Update

With the Scottish Cup finalists and settled, and the top 6 in the SPL decided, we are now closer to knowing which clubs will represent Scotland in Europe next season. Rangers will not be granted a UEFA licence to take part because they were in administration beyond the deadline, so they are not eligible to participate. The only clubs who are still able to qualify for Europe are Celtic (already qualified), Motherwell, St Johnstone, Dundee Utd, Hearts and Hibs. Only one of them will miss out.


Champions League

Which teams qualify?

Scotland will have two entrants in next season’s Champions League. The allocation of these two places is simple – they will go to the two highest placed clubs in the SPL who are eligible to compete in Europe.

Celtic have already guaranteed their place by winning the SPL title. The second spot will go to the 2nd or 3rd placed SPL club, depending on where Rangers finish. Motherwell, St Johnstone, Dundee United and Hearts are all still able to qualify.

Which round will they enter?

Both representatives will enter the competition at the 3rd Qualifying Round, and will have to win two ties to reach the group stage.

Celtic will have an easier route – they will only play the champions of other smaller nations. In the 3rd Qualifying Round they could face the champions of countries ranging from Switzerland or Israel right down to Northern Ireland and Wales. Seeding would make one of the latter seem more likely. In the Play-off Round, the most difficult opposition they could face would be the champions of Belgium or Romania, but again seeding might keep them apart from these sides.

The other entrant will face non-champions from larger countries and will find it very tough to qualify. In the 3rd Qualifying Round they could face the 3rd placed team from Portugal or the runners-up from Russia, Ukraine or the Netherlands. The most beatable opposition would probably be the Danish or Belgian runners-up, but seeding would most likely prevent them from facing any of these sides. If they progressed to the play-off stage, they could meet the 4th placed sides from England, Spain or Germany.

If either team loses their 3rd Qualifying Round tie, they would be parachuted into the Europa League at the Play-off Round. If either team loses their Champions Play-off Round tie, they would drop down into the Europa League Group Stage.

When are their matches?

The 2012/13 Champions League starts on 3rd July 2012 – two days after the final of Euro 2012. Scottish teams don’t quite enter that early, but will play their first matches before the start of the SPL season.

3rd qualifying round – 30th July/1st August & 7th/8th August

Play-off round – 21st/22nd August & 28th/29th August

Group stage – 18th/19th September, 2nd/3rd October, 23rd/24th October, 6th/7th November, 20th/21st November, 4th/5th December.



Europa League

Which teams qualify?

The Europa League places are slightly more complicated. There are 3 places available.

The 4th and 5th placed clubs in the SPL are guaranteed a Europa League spot. 6th may or may not be enough to qualify depending on what happens in the Scottish Cup final (and where Hearts finish if they win it).


If Hibs win the Scottish Cup

Hibs will enter the Europa League along with the 4th and 5th placed SPL sides. They will enter at the following stages of the competition.

Hibs – Play-off Round
4th in SPL – 3rd Qualifying Round
5th in SPL – 2nd Qualifying Round


If Hearts finish 2nd/3rd in the SPL and win the Scottish Cup

Hearts will qualify for the Champions League if they finish 2nd or 3rd. If a Champions League qualifying team wins the Scottish Cup, then the runners-up get into Europe as the cup representatives. That would mean that Hibs would qualify for Europe.

4th in SPL – Play-off Round
5th in SPL – 3rd Qualifying Round
Hibs – 2nd Qualifying Round


If Hearts finish 4th-6th in SPL and win the Scottish Cup

Even if they also qualify for Europe via the league, Hearts will officially be considered to be the cup representatives in the Europa League. As a result, the cup runners-up would not get a place in Europe, and it would instead go to the next placed side in the SPL. This would mean that all the clubs (except Rangers) in the top 6 would qualify for Europe.

Hearts – Play-off Round
4th in SPL (5th if Hearts finish 4th) – 3rd Qualifying Round
5th in SPL (or 6th if Hearts finish 4th/5th) – 2nd Qualifying Round

When are their matches?

The earliest entrant will play their first European match on 19th July, two and a half weeks before the start of the SPL season.

2nd Qualifying Round – 19th July & 26th July

3rd Qualifying Round – 2nd August & 9th August

Play-off Round – 23rd August & 30th August

Group Stage – 20th September, 4th October, 25th October, 8th November, 22nd November, 6th/13th December


The SPL Run-in – a useless numerical analysis

After this weekend’s hiatus for the Scottish Cup semi-finals, the SPL will begin its run-in next week.  While the title has already been secured by Celtic, a number of other issues have still to be settled.  In the top 6, the second Champions League place up for grabs along with the additional Europa League spots.  In the bottom 6, Dunfermline will look to find some form and breathe some life into the relegation battle.

First of all, let me admit that you will probably glean very little about the possible twists and turns of the SPL run-in this season by reading this post. It is very easy to look at the past and make statements about what has happened then, but it is much more difficult to predict the future, particularly with the huge number variables involved in football.  Players, managers and even stadia change, and form fluctuates from season to season.

I can tell you that Hibs have picked up 1.3 points per game in bottom 6 matches since the split was introduced, but that probably isn’t particularly relevant to the current Hibs team.  Nonetheless, I hope you find it an interesting read, and can at least use some of the stats to supplement your own beliefs about what will happen in the last five games of the season.

I set out to analyse the form of teams before and after the split, to see if there were any marked changes.  If St Johnstone are traditionally excellent after the split, while Motherwell always struggle in those matches, then that could spell bad news for the latter club’s Champions League aspirations.  I have also looked at whether this change in form varies depending on whether teams are in the top or bottom 6.  Logic would dictate that clubs will face tougher matches in the top 6, and easier matches in the bottom 6, given the standard of opposition involved.


Overall Form Change

The table on the left shows the change in the number of points per game earned by clubs before and after the split.  The clubs marked in green have picked up more points per game after the split than before, while those in red have earned fewer points per game.

The 6 clubs marked in red include the Old Firm and the two Edinburgh clubs, who have been the most successful clubs in terms of making the top 6.  Conversely, the clubs who have shown the biggest improvement after the split have been those which have always finished in the bottom half.

Given that this table includes two teams who have never been in the bottom 6, and a number of teams who have never been in the top 6, it does not really allow for a proper comparison.  It may be of more interest to look at the change in point accumulation for each half of the table separately.

NB: The figures have been rounded to two decimal places, which explains the slight disparities in the “change” value for Dunfermline (the same applies later).


Top 6 Form Changes

This table includes only those seasons where the clubs have made the top 6 of the SPL, to look at how form changes after reaching the top half of the league.  It is clear that, as expected, clubs tend to pick up fewer points per game after the split than they do before it.  The only exception is Livingston, who are a slight anomaly given that they only had a single season in the top 6.

The worst performers in the top 6 are Dunfermline and Hibs, whose performance dropped by just under 0.7 points per game after the split in seasons where they made the top 6.  Perhaps worringly for Motherwell, they are next, with a drop of 0.61 points per game.  So far this season, they have averaged 1.67 points per game, and if history repeats then this will drop to just over 1 point per game for the last five matches.

They can take solace in the fact that Dundee United and Hearts, two of their rivals for that last Champions League spot have faced similar troubles when reaching the top 6.  Current 4th placed side St Johnstone are something of a wildcard, given that this is their first season in the top 6 since the split was introduced.

I used these “change” values to calculated the predicted final table based on the points per game earned so far, giving St Johnstone an incredibly optimistic change of 0.  There were no changes to the order of the table (the same was true of the bottom 6), so I haven’t included it.

There have been a few exceptionally good (and bad) post-split performances in the top 6.  Celtic are the only club who have won all five post-split fixtures, doing so in 2002/03, 2007/08 and 2009/10.  The best non-OF performance in the top half came from Hearts, who managed to pick up 13 points in 2003/04.  Rangers have picked up 13 points on two occasions (2008/09 & 2010/11).  No club has ever lost all five of their post-split fixtures in the top 6, with the worst performance coming from Motherwell in 2003/04 when they picked up just 1 point.


Bottom 6 Form Changes

This time, the table only includes the seasons where the clubs have finished in the bottom 6 of the SPL.  As expected, most clubs have picked up more points per game after the split than they did before.  Only Hearts and Motherwell have picked up fewer points, and the former is again perhaps an anomaly given that they only spent one season in the bottom 6.  Motherwell have spent six seasons in the bottom 6, so the same cannot be said for them.  It may be that they find it difficult to motivate themselves for bottom 6 matches.

Hamilton have shown the biggest improvement in their post-split matches, perhaps reflecting a style of play which was more effective against the poorer sides in the league.  Partick Thistle and Gretna showed the next biggest improvement, but both clubs had brief stays in the league.

Killie, St Mirren and Inverness will each be enjoying their seventh season playing bottom 6, more than any other clubs.  Of those three, only Killie have any top 6 experience, having been there on five occasions. Each has improved by more than a half a point per game in the bottom 6 compared to their pre-split matches.

No club has ever won all five of their post-split fixtures in the bottom 6.  Two clubs have managed to take 13 points out of 15 from these matches – Killie in 2004/05 and Hamilton in 2009/10.  The latter is more impressive, given that it dragged them out of a five-way relegation battle.  Aberdeen hold an unwanted record as the only side to lose all of their post-split matches (in 2003/04).

SPL Head-to-Head Records

Most football fans will be able to tell you that a certain opposing side is their “bogey team”, and that they have a great record against another club.  The league table often has little bearing on the identity of these lucky and unlucky opponents.  Here, I’ve taken a look at the results since the start of the SPL in 1998/99 to identify the distribution of points for each side.

The choice of the SPL era is down to convenience, rather than any sort of attempt to rewrite history.  I took me 6 or 7 hours to compile stats on this era, and I simply don’t have enough time to look all the way back to the start of the Scottish top flight.  There are a few online resources full head-to-head records for teams, but these don’t differentiate between top flight and lower tier matches.  If anyone has a complete list of top-flight head-to-head records to hand, please get in touch, because I’d love to do this for the entire history of the top flight.

Hopefully this can still be considered a guide of recent form in each SPL fixture.

Total Points

This chart shows the total number of SPL points won by each team against each other opponent.  The first row shows the number of points won by Aberdeen against each other team – they have picked up 20 points against Celtic, 30 points against Dundee and so on.  Blank entries indicate two sides which have not met in the SPL.

The highest value in this table is the 125 points which Celtic have earned against Aberdeen.  Gretna and Partick Thistle are the only sides with multiple zeroes in their rows – which reflects the success of their short stays in the SPL.  Hamilton didn’t pick any points up against Rangers, but did manage a draw with Celtic last season.

As interesting as this table may be, it is flawed because it doesn’t take into account the number of times each pair of sides have met.  Motherwell have picked up more points against Celtic than against Hamilton, but that is because they have met Celtic 49 times, and Hamilton 10 times.  It is more informative to look at the number of points earned per game against each opponent.

Points per Game

This table gives a clearer reflection of the most one-sided matches in SPL history.  There have been 8 fixtures where one of the teams have a 100% record, and 5 of those involved Gretna.  Hibs, Inverness and Motherwell are the only non-OF sides to have a 100% record against another side – all against Gretna.  Any record of 2 points per game or more is fairly impressive, while anything less than 1 point per game suggests a poor record.

It can be difficult to get your head around so many, numbers, so I have also produced a graph with a colour scale.  The brightest yellow indicates 0 points per game, while the bright red is 3 points per game.  Most head-to-head duels will lie somewhere between these extremes, as indicated by the linear colour scale.

Best and Worst Opponents

The table below shows the best and worst opponents for each side in terms of points earned per game.  Unsurprisingly, Celtic or Rangers are the worst opponents for each side, so I have also identified the worst opponents when the Old Firm sides are excluded.  Apart from Rangers, the biggest thorn in Celtic’s side has been Hearts, who also feature heavily as the worst non-OF opponents for many sides.  If you exclude Celtic, then Rangers have been caused most trouble by Inverness.  Apart from the special cases of Rangers and Celtic, there are two other sides in the unfortunate position of having their local rivals as their worst opponents, with Dunfermline struggling against Falkirk and Hibs against Hearts.

It is interesting to note that three of the SPL’s ever-presents, Dundee Utd, Killie and Motherwell, have struggled against clubs whose visits to the SPL were fairly brief.  Dundee United finished 5th in Gretna’s only season in the SPL, but managed to lose 2 of their 3 matches against the Borders side. Hamilton’s stay in the SPL coincided with one of Killie’s poorest periods since their promotion in the early 90s, and indeed Killie didn’t record a single win at New Douglas Park.  Partick Thistle’s two seasons in the league were during Motherwell’s financial troubles, and the Firhill side took advantage more than most.

Post-Split Fixtures

With the top 6 settled with a game to spare, it is now time for the SPL to decide on the post-split fixtures.  These will inevitably create controversy, with at least one team generally having a complaint about having to visit a certain ground 3 times, or about having too few home games.  The SPL attempt to prevent these problems by “seeding” the fixtures on the assumption that the top 6 in the previous season will be repeated, but this has never actually happened in practice.  This season, St Johnstone finished in the top 6 and Killie in the bottom 6, causing yet another headache for the fixture schedulers.

I am personally a fan of the split despite these quirks – it gives mid-table teams something to play for until close to the end of the season, and also allows the SPL to manipulate the fixture list to create “winner takes all” matches at the end of the season, which is good for creating interest in the league.  The SPL was one of the first leagues to introduce a split, but it has since been copied by a number of other European countries.

Top 6

The table on the right shows the number of home games each of the top 6 clubs are due, and also the opponents that each club are supposed to be playing at home.  We can see that there are four clubs due 3 home games, and two clubs due 2 homes.  Unfortunately, that means that one club will end up with 18 homes and 20 aways.

Generally when this situation arises, the SPL will attempt to cause as little inconvenience as possible to the teams who still have something to play for.  In this case, the race for the European places involves all four clubs apart from the Old Firm, while Rangers still have 2nd place to play for.  Celtic will probably seal the league title before the split, so fairness would dictate that they are the team who should miss out on the home game.

However, I’m sure all of us know the SPL well enough to know that it is extremely unlikely that this course of action will be taken.  Celtic and Rangers tend to hold more sway than any of the other clubs, and have never previously been disadvantaged by the split aside from the inevitability of having to go to certain away grounds 3 times a season.  This means that the most likely club to be disadvantaged would be St Johnstone.  They have previously had the benefit of the split – with 20 home games and 18 aways in a season, although it was way back in 2001/02.  They also have the best away record in the SPL, which may mean that the team would feel less inconvenienced by having an extra away match.

A couple of other adjustments are necessary in order to sort out the fixture list.  Rangers are due one extra away match, while Motherwell are due an extra home.  This should mean that Rangers will make a 3rd trip to Fir Park after the split.  Dundee United are also due an extra away match, and can be sent to either Celtic Park or McDiarmid Park for a 3rd time, depending on who the SPL decide to disadvantage.

Bottom 6

The bottom 6 have the opposite imbalance.  Four of the clubs are due just 2 home matches, while only two of them are due 3 homes.  That means that one of the bottom 6 will have 20 homes and 18 aways.  Again, the priority of the SPL should be to protect the integrity of the relegation battle, which means that neither Hibs nor Dunfermline should be given the extra home game.

That means that either Killie or Aberdeen should be given the extra home match.  A look at previous seasons shows that Aberdeen have already had the advantage of 20 homes and 18 aways on three occasions (2005/06, 2007/08 and 2009/10), and have only had 18 homes and 20 aways once (2004/05).  On the other hand, Killie have never previously had 20 homes and 18 aways, but have had 18 homes and 20 aways once (2006/07).  That would suggest that Killie are due the extra home game more than Aberdeen.

Assuming that Killie are given the extra home game, the only additional adjustment necessary is to send Hibs to Inverness for a 3rd time.  That would leave every club except Killie with 19 homes and 19 aways as expected.  It would also seem extremely likely that the SPL will attempt to create a relegation decider, which suggests that Hibs will host Dunfermline at Easter Road on the 12th May.