Sport

Johansen can be the top Bhoy

Stefan Johansen is 40/1 each way to be top scorer in the Scottish Premiership this term  
Odds & Ends with Michael McWilliams

WHEN Rangers fluffed their lines in a big way at the end of last season, going down 6-1 on aggregate to Motherwell in their Scottish Premiership promotion play-off, most Celtic fans will have allowed themselves a wry smirk at the very least.

Yet, deep down, all Hoops supporters are well aware that the sooner their Glasgow rivals return to the top table of Scottish football, the better it will be all round. In the Ibrox club’s self-inflicted absence, the Hoops have walked the title race year after year, with very little excitement being generated.

Indeed, Celtic have taken their eye off the league for the first few months of the last couple of seasons, placing their focus on Europe, and still strolled to the title. That was again the case last season when, despite talk of Aberdeen putting in a sustained challenge around the turn of the year, Ronny Deila’s men were able to pull away down the stretch and canter home by 17 points.

The only question this time around is the margin of victory for Deila’s men, who kick off their league campaign at home to Ross County on Saturday, but will be more concerned with negotiating their Champions League third round qualifier with Azerbaijan champions Qarabag, starting at Parkhead this evening.

The Hoops are racing certainties to win the Premiership for the fifth year on the bounce – a best price of 1/20 with William Hill tells you everything you need to know – and they should be even better than last term, with Deila having had 12 months to get a feel for the club.

The Norwegian got off to a sticky start but gradually won the Celtic faithful round and if he can secure a much-coveted Champions League place his stock will rise further. Deila has made a couple of signings thus far in the transfer window but is more or less playing with the same settled hand he ended last term with, and he will concentrate on Europe for now.

Of course, there are no betting opportunities in terms of backing the Celts for the title, and the advice has to be to look at some of the other markets in order to make a few quid.

The simplest thing to do if you have a few quid and a lot of patience is backing Aberdeen in the ‘without Celtic’ betting at 8/11 with Sky Bet.

The Dons are by some way the second-biggest club in the top tier – although newly-promoted Hearts might dispute that. Derek McInnes has built a very decent side without spending a fortune and he has goals aplenty at his disposal thanks to the likes of Adam Rooney and Niall McGinn.

Aberdeen had a 10-point cushion easing up in second last year and are pretty certain to finish in the same spot again, so the 8/11 isn’t actually a bad price. That said, waiting nine months to get paid out on an odds-on shot won’t appeal to many punters, and therefore the top goalscorer market is the one to plunder.

Rooney led the way with 18 last season and can be backed at 10/1 this time around, with Celtic strikers Leigh Griffiths (5/1, Bet 365) and Nadir Ciftci (8/1, Ladbrokes) ahead of him in the betting.

They both hit the net 14 times last term and will get their fair share once more, but there are better bets at bigger odds. And you don’t have to look outside Celtic Park for two of my runners.

First up is last season’s SPFA Player of the Year Stefan Johansen, who is fast becoming the first name on Deila’s team-sheet. Johansen was pushed into a more advanced role in midfield by his fellow Norwegian last season and rewarded thay faith with nine goals.

He is becoming more and more at home in the Scottish League and it might be just a matter of time before English clubs come calling, but for now Celtic will be keen to make the most of his talents. He’s a box-to-box midfielder and a very cool finisher who has already hit the ground running, scoring in both legs on the Champions League win over Stjarnan.

Yet the layers have failed to pay attention and Johansen can still be backed at 40/1 with Sky Bet, which looks a brilliant each-way punt.

The other Celt to have a bet on, admittedly at shorter odds, is Kris Commons, who can be backed at 14/1 with Coral. The former Derby man’s pre-season has been disrupted by niggling injuries, but he is perhaps the most gifted player in Scotland and seems to have convinced Deila of his worth.

That he scored 10 goals without being a fixture in the side for the early part of the last campaign speaks volumes about the quality Commons possesses, and he hit the net 27 times in the league the previous season.

Overall, he has a record just shy of a goal every two games during his four-and-a-half years in the Scottish Premiership and maintaining that ratio would be good enough to get into the 
each-way mix.

I’m going to put up Ross County’s former Cliftonville marksman Liam Boyce as a live each-way bet at 50/1 (Sky Bet). The north Belfast man scored 10 times in his first year in full-time football, with seven coming in the last seven games.

The former Reds man combines power with a great deal of subtlety and with his fitness now at the desired level, he should continue to be a handful for defences. The 50/1 quoted for the best striker in a team who could surprise a few this term should not be ignored.

The Dingwall outfit are actually favourites to take the drop, yet the way they finished last term under Jim McIntyre should give them grounds for cautious optimism.

Boyce’s strike partner Michael Gardyne has been signed permanently from Dundee United, while experienced defenders Richard Foster and Andrew Davies have come in from Rangers and Bradford respectively.

County took 32 points from their last 14 games last season and that is top-six form. If they can get even close to that over a longer period of time, they might just be worth a bet at 9/1 (William Hill) for a top-half finish.

Finally, Hamilton look likely to have a tough season and the 4/1 about them finishing bottom is a decent quote.

The Accies dropped like a stone after manager Alex Neil left for Norwich in January, and that they finished seventh owed everything to how they went before his departure. Martin Canning has struggled to make the switch from player to manager, winning just three of his 18 games, and any continuation of that form would see Hamilton deep in the mire.

 

THIS weekend’s action at Croke Park offers up the very real possibility that by the close of play on Saturday night, four Ulster teams will have reached the last eight of the All-Ireland SFC.

Yet there is very little chance all four will still be in the hunt 24 hours later.

Tyrone and Donegal will face Sligo and Galway respectively for the last two quarter-final places on Saturday, and the bookies expect them both to progress at the expense of their Connacht rivals.

Mickey Harte’s men are no bigger than 1/14 to see off a Sligo side who may have recovered physically from their provincial final defeat to Mayo, but who will surely still be carrying the scars of that 26-point hammering.

The Red Hands aren’t at the level of years gone by, but they are still amongst the top 10 teams in the country and have regrouped well since their Ulster preliminary round loss to Donegal.

Wins over Limerick, Meath and Tipperary in the Qualifiers have allowed them to find a system to suit and with reliable scorers like Sean Cavanagh and Darren McCurry (above) in their ranks, they will have far too much quality for Sligo outfit.

Paddy Power are even-money about Tyrone with an eight-point handicap and I fully expect them to cover that.

Donegal, meanwhile, will be looking to buck the trend of lthe osing provincial finalists bowing out on their next outing, and they won’t have anything like Sligo’s hangover.

Rory Gallagher’s side went down to an agonising one-point defeat to Monaghan last weekend, but they will still feel confident of making a tilt at All-Ireland glory. They face a Galway team who have, like Donegal, beaten both Armagh and Derry, and are capable of giving them a good game.

Indeed, on paper the Tribesmen made lighter work of Derry than Gallagher’s side, but they benefitted hugely from a dismal performance from the Oak Leafs in the second half and from the referee throughout.

Only 1-2 of their 1-11 total in Salthill came from play, and they will need to find another way to score against a Donegal team who are disciplined and experienced in defence.

In attack, Michael Murphy won’t be kept as quiet as he was by Vinny Corey in the Ulster decider, and Paddy McBrearty is in very good form.

Donegal are 1/2 with Boylesports to take this one, but I’m more interested in the 11/8 offered by Paddy Power about them minus three points.

Finally, Fermanagh’s reward for their run to the last eight is a clash at headquarters with the mighty Dubs, who are 1/250 in places to win.

The Erne men have been a breath of fresh air but this is clearly a step too far and the emphasis will be on limiting the damge against Diarmuid Connolly and company. Dublin are a great bet at evens with a 14-point handicap, and if you roll that up with Tyrone (-8) and Donegal (-3) you’ll have a tasty 19/2 treble.

 

TAKE A PUNT
Stefan Johansen, Scottish Premiership top scorer, e/w, 40/1 (Sky Bet)
Kris Commons, Scottish Premiership top scorer, e/w, 14/1 (General)
Liam Boyce, Scottish Premiership top scorer, e/w, 50/1 (Sky Bet)
Ross County, top six finish, 9/1 (William Hill)
Hamilton to finish bottom, 4/1 (General)

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