An anxious, tentative night of Scottish Championship action on Tuesday underlined the high stakes involved in the fight for a place in the playoffs.
Dunfermline and Dundee played out a 0-0 that likely had viewers of BBC Scotland questioning the merits of their licence fees, the fear of losing utterly overwhelming desire to win.
Raith Rovers, meanwhile, showed grit and gumption to claim a crucial 1-0 win at Queen of the South.
The upshot of the action is that we are now in the final straight; every team in the Championship has played 24 fixtures and, with three nerve-shredding matches left to fulfil in the race to make the playoffs, five into three won’t go.
🏆 Scottish Championship table pic.twitter.com/G70ijpLg2u
— SPFL (@spfl) April 13, 2021
Rovers look safe and, along with Dundee, will turn their attention to finishing as runners-up to champions Hearts. It would take a cataclysmic collapse for either side to drop out of the top four.
Inverness, Dunfermline and Queen of the South – three points adrift of fourth place, with a significantly poorer goal difference than their rivals – make up the chasing pack.
But, with several head-to-heads during the run-in and then the prospect of the playoffs themselves, which of the sides have prevailed most often when the promotion hopefuls have crossed swords this term?
The numbers make heartening reading for Inverness boss Neil McCann.
Not only are the Caley Jags the most improved team in the Championship in recent weeks – with six wins from their last seven outings – but they have excelled against their potential playoff foes, registering the best points-per-game (PPG) tally of the quintet.
Dundee’s modest PPG total is exceptionally relevant going into their final three games of the regular campaign given they are all against direct competitors: Inverness, Raith and Queens.
Indeed, the respective run-ins of the teams will be a pivotal factor in how the final table shakes out – and could yet provide some solace for misfiring Dunfermline.
Raith Rovers, 2nd (Alloa (a), April 17; Dundee (a), April 24; Hearts (h), April 30)
The Fifers could condemn Alloa to relegation this weekend and, in the process, cement their status as Hearts’ closest challengers.
The fact Rovers host the Jambos – already champions and with an eye on next season – in their final match is an inviting final fixture and, while no-one at Tynecastle would admit it, should see Raith far more motivated to claim three points than the men in maroon.
— Daniel Armstrong. (@danielarm117) April 13, 2021
The headline fixture is, however, the April 24 showdown at Dens Park; a game that could serve as a shootout for second, with just two points separating the sides.
Dundee, 3rd (Inverness CT (a), April 20; Raith Rovers (h), April 24; Queen of the South (a), April 30)
James McPake’s men, currently enjoying a five-game unbeaten run in the league, have a blockbuster run-in, with every game seeing the Dee pitted against another side with Premiership aspirations – albeit some more fanciful at this stage than others.
A Tuesday night trip to Inverness is onerous and also eats into the preparation time for the subsequent clash with Raith four days later. Dundee have not beaten Rovers this season and the Kirkcaldy club will enjoy a free week ahead of the showdown.
Queens face a fight to keep their top-four hopes alive until the final day and, should they fail to do that, the trip to Palmerston may look a little less daunting than it does currently.
Inverness, 4th (Dundee (h), April 20; Hearts (a), April 24; Ayr United (h), April 30)
Inverness will be counting on an upturn in their home form in their trio of games. The Highlanders have been underwhelming on their own patch this term (one home win in all competitions since November 21) and will seek to remedy that when Dundee and Ayr visit.
— SPFL (@spfl) April 13, 2021
By contrast, they have the second-best away record in the division, behind Hearts, and might just fancy their chances of causing an upset in Gorgie, where McCann remains held in high regard.
Dunfermline 5th (Queen of the South (h), April 17; Arbroath (h), April 24; Alloa (a), April 30)
The Pars have been in freefall since the turn of the year. In fact, since defeating Hearts 2-1 to go top of the Championship on November 20, their league record reads: P19, W4, D8, L7. Not the sort of form that has anyone on Halbeath Road stocking up on Champagne.
However, all is not lost for those of a Pars persuasion. They have, on paper, the most inviting run-in. They host a Queens side they have already beaten at East End Park this term before relegation-threatened Arbroath visit Fife, although it would be unwise to underestimate Dick Campbell’s Lichties.
Should it come down to the final day, they travel to Alloa who, barring a minor miracle, will have nothing to play for and will be saying farewell to the Championship.
Queen of the South 6th (Dunfermline (a), April 17; Arbroath (h) April 24; Dundee (h) April 30)
Queens had been on a tear of late – five wins from seven Championship games, including wins over Dundee and Hearts – but have succumbed to inconsistency in the last fortnight.
Defeat against Rovers on Tuesday night was a hammer blow to their hopes and, although only three points off the playoff places, their goal difference of minus nine effectively means they need to at least make up four points with only nine to play for.
With Dunfermline, Arbroath and Dundee all to come, it would take an almighty act of wizardry for “Magic’s men” to make the top four.