Another international break is upon us. It’s been a busy schedule for us getting here, but other than disappointment in Leipzig it’s been very successful. We’re into next month’s League Cup final, we had a terrific home win over the third best team in Germany, and we’ve closed the gap on Hearts at the top of the league such that we can overtake them by winning our games in hand.
Today is now teasingly one of those, since Hearts lost 1-0 to Kilmarnock yesterday, and we travel through to Livingston to face a much changed side from the one we faced on flag day.
Back then, Livingston were the team expected to go straight back down to the Championship having come up through the playoffs and then quickly lost their manager. By the time we played them at Celtic Park, Kenny Miller was player/manager and they lost 3-1 as goals from Tom Rogic, Odsonne Edouard and Olivier Ntcham got us going and not worrying too much about the very late consolation from Scott Robinson.
Miller didn’t last long as Livingston decided they wanted a real manager instead. Gary Holt came in and immediately changed Livingston’s fortunes. They beat St Mirren, Hibernian and Hamilton before drawing away to league leaders Hearts. Then there was the first coin incident of the season where they won 1-0 and the visiting supporters drew blood from the linesman. A draw at Motherwell and a thumping of Livingston came next before they finally lost for just the second time at home to St Johnstone. Last weekend they followed that up with another defeat to Hamilton.
For a team that was supposed to be getting relegated, that’s a really good run of form. They were above us in the league during that run, but have since slipped down to eighth in the table thanks to those recent defeats.
The Tony Macaroni arena, or Almondvale as its probably more commonly known, is not somewhere we’ve been in a while. Indeed, our last visit there was actually to play Gretna in March 2008! Their ground sharing at Fir Park on their one and only season in the top flight had been a disaster, with the pitch in Motherwell unplayable. Games were piling up so much that the season was eventually extended by a few days to fit them all in and the final game was unusually played on a Thursday night.
The last time we were there to play Livingston was on our way to winning the Scottish Cup in 2007. One goal from Darren O’Dea, two from Derek Riordan and one from Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink saw us win 4-1 despite having lost the first goal of the game to Dave Mackay.
Our last League game away to Livingston was in March 2006 when a 2-0 win thanks to goals from Maciej Zurawski and a penalty from Shaun Maloney set us up for a title clinching game at home to Hearts the following week. Livingston were of course relegated from the top flight at the end of that season, and have been all the way to the bottom and back again since.
Twelve and a half years on from that, Livingston will be looking to get back to winning ways and not find themselves slowly dragged into the relegation battle they were highly tipped to be in at the start of the season. They are seven points ahead of the team immediately below them, Motherwell, and a full thirteen points ahead of St Mirren currently in the playoff spot.
That gap can disappear with so much of the season still to play though, but they’ll draw confidence from earlier results this season. They’ve already beaten the teams that finished third and fourth last season, while they drew at Tynecastle which is a better result than we managed there. The 3-1 defeat at Celtic Park is a distant memory for this Livingston side.
But we want to win this game too. Our terrific domestic form has seen us score twenty three goals in our last five games, and only Hibernian managed to score against us in that same period. We also want to continue the great feeling that win in Europe on Thursday gave us, something Brendan Rodgers called his best home win in Europe across his three seasons in charge.
But most of all we have Hearts to overhaul and the rest of the league to keep at arms length behind us. Kilmarnock’s win means one very simple thing. We can go top of the league today. We haven’t had this chance since the start of the season.
It’s not just about overhauling Hearts though. Kilmarnock and St Johnstone are now one and two points behind us, albeit having played two games more. The next team behind us that have played the same number of games are four points away, and with them hosting Motherwell today as well we don’t want to be giving them hope to close that gap.
This is our last game before the international break. We’ve had a great period since the last one, a win today would be a great way to end it. But it would also give us a bit of a buffer for the games still to come.
Once we return on November 24th, we have no fewer than eleven games starting with that home game against Hamilton and ending with the trip to Ibrox on December 29th. That’s our final two Europa League group matches, the League Cup final, and eight league matches. No free time, no empty midweeks, just big game after big game.
Better to approach them from a position of strength, don’t you think?
Krys (Twitter @krys1888)