St Johnstone are about to play their third game at Hampden Park this season.
One trophy has been won and the Perth men are two games away from a domestic double, with St Mirren their Scottish Cup last-four opponents on Sunday.
Eric Nicolson assesses a disrupted build-up, its possible impact, their opposition’s strengths, key battles and likely match-winners.
It’s been pretty smooth sailing for Saints over the last few weeks, even months. How choppy are the waters now that they have lost four players to coronavirus regulations?
This is certainly a challenge Callum Davidson could have done without but it doesn’t have to be an insurmountable one.
There are a number of reasons for faith to remain intact.
Firstly, this has happened early enough in the week for a sharp-minded training ground coach like Davidson to tweak his starting line-up and/or tactics.
Saints have two systems which have proved to be equally as effective and he won’t be required to try out a third at this late stage of the season.
It will be 5-2-3 or 5-3-2, probably the latter.
By my calculations, Davidson has 17 outfield players who are regular or semi-regular starters. That number will obviously be diminished – and don’t expect many substitutions – but the point the Perth boss continually makes about the trust he has in that group isn’t fabricated.
Fans might not pick Craig Conway, Michael O’Halloran, Craig Bryson or Glenn Middleton in their first choice Saints XI but they won’t fear a drop-off in performance level if they start.
Those supporters had fun at Hibs’ expense last weekend when their ‘reserves’ beat the third best side in the country but the McDiarmid strength in depth is indisputable.
Take four players out of the Saints squad for a month (Scott Tanser makes it five) and there would be an issue but for a one-off, win or bust match, it shouldn’t define the outcome.
As perverse as it may sound, is there a school of thought that this turn of events may have some benefit on Sunday?
For starters, this was already a tight group who have each other’s backs. This misfortune will only augment that sense of common purpose.
Like any football cliché, there is some truth in the whole ‘circle the wagons’ thing.
The most significant aspect of all this could be, however, how St Mirren react to it.
Jim Goodwin will have his ear to the ground, no doubt, but he won’t know for sure until an hour before kick-off who is missing for the opposition.
And then there’s the psychological element.
Will these St Mirren players – the ones whose bottle crashed on top six D-Day and the ones who failed to produce their best football in their Betfred Cup semi-final – shrink or grow with extra expectation on their shoulders?
For a club which has snatching unlikely heartbreak out of the most promising of circumstances, this is a factor that can’t be dismissed.
We’ve reached the stage of the season when you have a good idea about how the teams match up in their head-to-heads. Is this a good one for St Johnstone?
I’ve covered all three St Johnstone v St Mirren matches and I would say with confidence that the Perth Saints are the better side. Not by much, mind you.
The first match – a 1-0, Stevie May winner – was arguably the most one-sided game in Saints’ favour all campaign, with the 3-0 at Motherwell its only rival. Goodwin tried and tried to alter the flow of the game but nothing worked.
The other two have been much more even contests – Saints will claim, with some justification, that Jason Kerr’s red card cost them in Paisley (they were also generally off-form at that point).
And the Buddies would suggest, again with some justification, that the last match in mid-January should have been a draw. They were pinning the hosts back after being reduced to 10 men for the last 35 minutes.
There’s nothing conclusive to be found in the league games, which were all settled by just one goal and neither side will think they are in their opponents’ heads.
Any mental edge will come from one team having won a semi-final and a final already and the other being unproven as a big-game winner.
Who are the main St Mirren danger men this time around?
The defensive rock needs no introduction to St Johnstone – it’s Joe Shaughnessy.
He’s a powerful presence in both boxes and looks more at ease with a leadership role in black and white stripes than he did in blue.
St Mirren have their own selection issues, albeit for more conventional football reasons. Eamonn Brophy is definitely out injured, while Ryan Flynn and Jonathan Obika are doubts.
If there’s one man who Davidson will prioritise keeping shackled, it’s Jamie McGrath.
A record of 15 goals from 42 games for a midfielder would keep most strikers happy, never mind midfielders. No wonder big clubs are tracking him.
Breaking up attacks has been Ali McCann’s calling card this season (the sliding tackle on Ryan Kent at Ibrox will live as long in my memory as Zander Clark’s heroics) and preventing McGrath from imposing himself will be the Northern Ireland international’s most important job of the afternoon.
They’re going to be in the same parts of the Hampden pitch, as the Opta touchmap comparison of the pair from their last game against each other at McDiarmid perfectly highlights.
And they’re probably going to see a similar amount of the ball, also apparent from their individual statistics that afternoon.
Two very talented young men and a pivotal head-to-head.
Shaun Rooney was the man who stole the headlines in Saints’ last two Hampden wins. Will it be three in a row?
The bigger the occasion (and the bigger the pitch), the better he plays.
Rooney started out his career going up and down the touchline at the national stadium with Queen’s Park and this would appear to be the grass he loves the most.
I’m going to pick out a different two men for potential Saints’ man of the match this time, and hopefully match-winner, though.
The first is David Wotherspoon.
By his very high standards, the team’s most creative player has been below his best since he returned from Canadian duty at the start of April.
The only man to start and win two cup finals for St Johnstone hasn’t scored since November and I sense this could be the weekend when he has one of those ball glued to his foot games.
The other is Guy Melamed.
He was unfortunate not to start the Betfred Cup semi-final, and even more unfortunate to be benched for the final.
A desire to seize his third chance (and, no doubt, increase his employment options for next season) will be very powerful.
Oh, and for the superstitious among you, St Johnstone have yet to lose a game Melamed has started.