The tightly-stacked Scottish Premiership gets back underway this weekend, with this fifth-versus-fourth clash one of the most intriguing fixtures on the card. Both of these sides are currently within three points of leaders Celtic, which is all the more surprising for Saints, given that five games ago they sat deep in the bottom half with eight points from as many games. A run of five consecutive wins, without conceding a single goal, has catapulted them into the top half.
Killie, for their part, have fallen back a little from the hugely impressive displays of last season’s second half, but under boss Steve Clarke are still very much in the reckoning for a club-best (in the modern era) finish. This could be a very tight game, with both sides basing their approaches on organisation and work-rate, but St Johnstone in particular have been in superb form over the past month and confidence will be high going into this game.
St Johnstone vs Kilmarnock Prediction: St Johnstone 1-0 Kilmarnock
A smothering defence has helped St Johnstone bounce back from the horror show that saw them lose 6-0 to Celtic a little over a month ago. Playing a flat back four with plenty of support from midfielders Murray Davidson and Liam Craig, they’ve turned McDiarmid Park into a fortress. Aside from a heavy win over Hamilton, they’ve not been as flawless further forward, but even one goal is enough right now. The bookies can’t separate these sides, but we’ve a feeling the ninety minutes and a single goal will – just.
Our recommended tip: BTTS – No
In each of their last four games – win, lose or draw – Killie have scored a single goal each time. This has been the case against Hamilton and Rangers alike. They’re not a side that expects, or gets, large scorelines. As already discussed, St Johstone’s penalty area is a Bermuda Triangle for attacking play – as soon as it gets in there, it disappears. All of this adds up to a game that will likely be extremely low-scoring; there’s every chance of a goalless draw, and if the game is won it’s likely to be through a single goal on either side.
The sides have met previously this season, on opening day back in August and long before the Great Wall of Perth was erected in Saints’ defence. On that day, home side Killie broke the deadlock after 58 minutes through defender Scott Boyd. Five minutes from the end, Michael Ndjoli, on loan from Bournemouth, marked his league debut with the goal that made the win safe.
The previous meeting, also at Rugby Park, ended with the same scoreline, strikers Kris Boyd and Lee Erwin getting the goals either side of half-time.
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Players to watch: Joe Shaughnessy & Greg Stewart
Club captain Shaughnessy has played in eleven of his side’s games this season, and played every minute of those games. That stint includes Saints’ recent run, and his whole-hearted defensive performances have been a major reason for the extreme stinginess they’ve managed to achieve. Against Hibs recently, he even got forward late on to score the winning goal, thumping in a header from David Wotherspoon’s free-kick. The Galway-born centre-half will be a vital cog for his side against Killie.
Stewart should, at least, be well-rested, having served a two-game suspension for head-butting which caused him to miss games against Aberdeen and Hearts. If Killie are to breach the home defence, it is likely to be the striker, on loan from Birmingham, who gets the goal. It was Stewart who scored at Ibrox to earn his side a very creditable draw against Rangers, and he leads the team with four league goals. A contender for future international recognition with Scotland, he’ll be watched closely here.