With Celtic almost certainties to win the league and be Scotland’s sole representatives in the Champions League: the struggle for Europa League football and title of “best of the rest” is a huge focus for the fans of the newly branded Scottish Premiership. Scottish teams have had mixed fortunes in this competition over the last few seasons. Last year, Hearts were only minutes away from forcing extra time against Liverpool; whereas, Hibernian have embarrassed themselves, and Scottish football, after their 9-0 aggregate loss to Malmo – the heaviest defeat ever inflicted on a Scottish team in Europe.
The teams finishing second and third in Scotland get the chance in the Europa League qualifiers with a third qualifying through the Scottish Cup. The allure of European football is obvious to understand with the financial benefits as well as the chance to play some of the biggest teams in Europe. Most teams will be dreaming of the Europa League but there is a distinct group that will compete with each other to be successful in the battle for European football.
Aberdeen have made some very astute signings by adding the experienced Barry Robson and Willo Flood into their midfield. Moreover, the talented Gregg Wylde makes his return to Scottish Football after a failed stint with Bolton. Northern Irish striker Niall McGinn carried Aberdeen last season and the rest of the squad will need to contribute if they are to finish in the top three. Derek McInnes will have his first full season in charge and will be desperate to take this young and talented Aberdeen team into Europe.
Dundee United finished 6th last season which was not good enough for a team that were labelled most likely to challenge Celtic. They have lost key players, most notably strikers Jon Daly and Johnny Russell, but have brought David Goodwillie back to the club to help fill the void up front. The squad is filled with talented young players, most notably Gary Mackay-Steven, an extremely quick and skilful winger that is dubbed the most exciting prospect in the SPFL. His performances could be key for Jamie McNamara if he is to continue his already strong managerial career. After leaving Partick Thistle last year he will be wanting to ensure he can deliver European football to Tannadice.
Inverness were desperately unlucky not to qualify for the Europa League last year. They were in pole position for the majority of the season and narrowly missed out after delivering exciting football. The squad has once more undergone a massive overhaul and they will be without key man Andrew Shinnie who left on a free transfer to Birmingham. They have, however, held onto striker Billy McKay whose goals were vital for Inverness. They were impressive last year and manager Terry Butcher will be hopeful that they can go one further this season and qualify for Europe.
Motherwell were last years runners-up and have undergone a massive upheaval in their squad. Many players that were vital for them last year have left and the replacements are not of the same quality. Players such as the league’s top goal scorer Michael Higdon, Henrick Ojamma and goal keeper Darren Randolph are just some of first-team players who have left. They are already seemingly out of Europe and Stuart McCall may struggle to replicate last years success although James McFadden adds quality to the side. Ideally, they would like to have built on last season with a strong showing in Europe and the cup competitions but finishing in the top three and getting into Europe would represent a good season.
St Johnstone have already shown the appeal of European football to the other teams in Scotland. The Saints fans have been treated to some incredible memories after knocking out Rosenborg and are set to do likewise to Minsk. If they get past Minsk they could see themselves against Tottenham or Fiorentina in the play-offs and for a team of their stature that would be a remarkable achievement. They have bought proven SPL players meaning their squad is strong. If possible, new manager Tommy Wright will want to deliver European football for next season to build on this years success.
These five teams are undoubtedly the front-runners to represent Scotland in the Europa League. It seems that Dundee United are the team in the strongest position especially if Mackay-Steven can fully develop and Goodwillie can return to the form he was in before his move to England. Nevertheless, it is difficult to rule out any of these teams as all are capable of finishing in the top three which would see them enter the qualifying round of the Europa League.