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TALKING FOOTBALL: 17-point lead means the cup is not a distraction for Dundee United

Robbie Neilson and Lawrence Shankland.
Robbie Neilson and Lawrence Shankland.

In this week’s Talking Football Ian Roache and Eric Nicolson discuss the Scottish Cup tie of the weekend at Tannadice, a chance for Dundee to make a point and the Matty Kennedy transfer story.

There had been no arguing with Dundee United’s relentless points winning but was Saturday at Firhill them back to their best for the first time in a while?

IR: Sitting at the game, I likened them to a boxer who sparred with their opponent for the early rounds then started landing knockout punches. They had a revamped defence that took a while to settle down, while new midfielder Dillon Powers needed time to adjust to the pace of the Scottish game. The weather was also pretty wild and the pitch heavy. However, you could actually see the Tangerines assuming control before your very eyes. Once they did, they were terrific.

EN: Not for the first time, when other so-called rivals haven’t been playing United have sent out an emphatic message. They’re a machine even when they are only seven out of 10 but when they reach and eight or nine you get results like Saturday’s.

The Lawrence Shankland goal ‘drought’ didn’t last long did it?

IR: We even had United manager Robbie Neilson joking after the game about how ‘Shanks’ had been devastated at not having scored for two matches. He was inconsolable, apparently. It was a fair point made with a smile by the Tannadice gaffer.

EN: He’s the best in the division by a mile, pure and simple. Now that Stephen Dobbie is having more off-days, only Kevin Nisbet comes close.

New boy Dillon Powers had a fine debut. What do you see his role as long-term at United?

IR: In almost every game I have watched United play this year, they have missed Calum Butcher – the Championship’s player of the month, remember – when he has not been in the team. This time was different, with the American anchoring the midfield with confidence in Butcher’s injury absence. Powers will only get better the more match fitness he acquires over these next few weeks and will provide serious competition to Butcher and others. He is the real deal.

EN: I’ll have to take Ian’s word on this one because I wasn’t at Firhill. But looking forward to next season, you could see a Butcher-Powers combination in the games against the stronger sides in the league. The formation Neilson likes requires plenty of physical options in the centre of midfield.

Nicky Clark at Firhill.

How do you expect Neilson to plug the gap left by Nicky Clark’s season-ending injury?

IR: The United manager was clearly distraught at his player’s predicament but United have been excellent at solving problems and meeting challenges this season. As well as his goals, they will miss Clark’s set-piece skills as his free-kicks and corners have been making a real difference. I expect Declan Glass to push himself forward after two excellent games since returning from his loan spell at Cove Rangers.

EN: Glass is indeed the nearest thing to a like for like if Cammy Smith’s future is away from the club. Neilson may look to play Paul McMullan more centrally again as well on occasion.

United v Hibs has to be the Scottish Cup tie of the round. Are the Tangerines the underdogs for the first time this season since they played Hearts or would you make them favourites given their results and form?

IR: I certainly wouldn’t make United favourites. This is an extremely difficult tie for the Tangerines and they will be underdogs. I probably expect the Premiership side to edge a tight game but, in saying that, I wouldn’t be placing any of my “hard-earned” salary on a victory for the visitors.

EN: United are the team with rhythm but Hibs are probably the third best side in the country at the moment. I predict a draw and a replay.

With the league all but won, will the game take on greater importance for Neilson than if United were in a tight title race?

IR: I would say ‘yes’ because had it been closer you might see the cup as an unwanted distraction from league business. With 17 points to play with, however, the cup can be a wanted distraction. This is almost a free hit for United. As a Championship club – albeit the runaway leaders – they can’t be expected to get through. Yet, you imagine there will be some nerves in the Hibs camp and Shankland, in particular, will worry them. My advice to the players would be relax, take advantage of any Hibs jitters, enjoy the home crowd’s backing and see where it takes them.

EN: If United beat Hibs, not only are they giving themselves the chance of a serious cup run, they will also put down a marker for next season that says – if we can do this with our Championship team, wait and see what we can do with one upgraded in the summer.

James McPake.

Dundee welcome Motherwell to Dens. A rare pressure-free weekend for James McPake and his players?

IR: There are obvious similarities to United’s tie against Hibs: a Championship side playing at home to a Premiership club. The Steelmen look even stronger than Hibs this season so no one should realistically expect a home win on Saturday. You can hope for one but not expect it. This is an important fixture for the Dark Blues mainly because they put pressure on themselves for being so poor against Inverness last time around. Supporters will be looking for – and deserve – a much-improved performance.

EN: I would slightly disagree with Ian in so much as I think Hibs are currently a better side than Motherwell. It’s a close call mind you. Either way, Motherwell are strong favourites. That should definitely take pressure off and Dundee’s display against Aberdeen in the Betfred should also offer some encouragement.

The winter break for Premiership sides should work in Dundee’s favour surely?

IR: The Motherwell players have been in Tenerife but it won’t have been kebabs and karaoke for them. It will have been work, work and more work. Also, the Dark Blues have had a mini-break themselves after their home game against Ayr United fell victim to a water-logged pitch so I don’t see any advantage for the Dens men – the visitors will be ready for this.

EN: I do think it will be a bit of a leveller. Plus, Motherwell lost to a poor Hamilton side in their last game of 2019 as well. I’m doing my best to talk this one up for Dundee!

What’s your opinion on McPake’s transfer targets?

IR: I imagine the manager’s biggest transfer goal is to hang on to Graham Dorrans and he remains quietly confident of doing so. I liked the look of Shaun Rooney when ICT beat Dundee the other week, while Alan Forrest always stands out from the crowd when Ayr are playing. Craig Wighton would have been welcomed back by fans for obvious Doon Derby reasons but Hearts have scuppered that one with their financial demands.

EN: I like the fact that McPake is targeting players who have been tried and tested at Championship level. If you can’t blow the rest away with your budget, that is the most reliable way to get out of that league. I would think Dundee have a better chance of getting Forrest than Rooney though given St Johnstone want the full-back.

Matty Kennedy.

How do you envisage the Matty Kennedy story panning out and would St Johnstone be mad to let him go this window?

IR: I’m not sure about mad but obviously it would be better for them if he joined Aberdeen than Hearts. You only have to look at the league table to see why.

EN: I think he’ll go to Aberdeen in the summer but probably not before. Would £50,000 for example tempt Saints in this window? I don’t think so. Derek McInnes would have to offer somebody like Mikey Devlin for a six-month loan to make it possible. The bar would be set even higher for Hearts given the fact they are relegation rivals.

There will be a familiar face back at McDiarmid on Saturday (if he’s fit). Will Chris Millar’s Morton side give Saints a good game?

IR: Morton’s form is decent, with back-to-back wins over Arbroath at Gayfield and Dunfermline at Cappielow. I would expect Saints to take care of them, though. I thought it was a fabulous draw for the McDiarmid men when it was made and I still believe that is the case.

EN: Morton aren’t nearly as good as they were in previous seasons and have struggled away from home on the whole. As long as Saints don’t get drawn into a physical type of game then they should be able to out-play them quite comfortably. Getting Stevie May scoring again would be an added bonus.

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