Betfred Cup Group Stages Preview –
It’s been a long wait for the return of competitive domestic football. Sure we’ve been able to watch Ronaldo score hat-tricks, Coutinho curl in stunners and Neymar roll around, but is there really anything like watching Highland League Champions Cove Rangers host a Hearts side managed by former Scotland manager Craig Levein?
So with the Betfred Cup group stages set to kick off this weekend, let’s take a look at each group, the stories behind them and their stand out fixtures.
Containing three Championship sides – Ross County, Dundee United and Alloa – Arbroath of League One and Elgin City of League Two, group A is bound to be competitive.
County and United will be highly predicted to do well here, as you’d expect with them being the two recognisable sides. However, all three other teams cannot be ruled out of competing for a place in the next round.
As the lowest ranked team, Elgin may feel as though they are unlikely to take much from this group. Arbroath have shown themselves to be competitive with more well regarded sides and Alan Johnston of Dunfermline Athletic recently said after his side’s narrow victory over the Angus side that he expects them to challenge for the League One title. Meanwhile, Alloa will see this as an excellent chance to test themselves against the level of side they’ll come up against this season in the Championship.
One of NE98’s games to watch takes place on the very first day. United will host Arbroath at Tannadice. The Gayfield park side have looked impressive in pre-season and if Csaba Laszlo’s side is not at their best, they may be caught out.
It’s then the very next match day, taking place next Tuesday that our other pick takes place. Ross County will host their potential Championship title rivals, Dundee United. Should the two favourites end up taking the top two places, this could be the match that decides who finishes above who. This could be important, as only the four best runners up will progress to the next round.
St Johnstone are the only Premiership side in group B. They are joined by Championship Falkirk, plus Montrose, Forfar and East Fife, all of League One. Of course St Johnstone will be expected to progress from this group but as this competition has in recent years, things don’t always go to plan.
Tommy Wright’s side will face last season’s League Two Champions Montrose at Links Park on Saturday the 21st. We’ve picked this match as it’s one of the better examples of a David Vs Goliath match up in this group – if not the competition as a whole. Not so long ago the Perth side were winning the Scottish Cup while Montrose were toiling in the lower end of League Two. Fortunes have turned for Montrose under Stewart Petrie, but make no bones about it, it will be a tough task for his team to get a result out of St Johnstone.
Our other pick also involves Montrose. This one will be the final group game for the gable endies on the 25th against Forfar. The first of five times this fixture will take place this season, Brechin and Arbroath will join these two as the four Angus sides in League One. So it’s pretty much a season of derbies. Once again, this is an opportunity for both to give themselves an idea of what they can achieve in the League this season. Of course, by this time it could even be a make or break match for one of the teams, or even both, to make a push to progress to the next round.
Group C contains a side from every level of Scottish football represented in the Betfred Cup. Premiership Hearts, Championship Inverness Caley Thistle, League One’s Raith Rovers, League Two’s Cowdenbeath and Highland League Champions Cove Rangers.
Not only is there interest here from the fact this group represents so many levels of Scottish Football, there is certainly going to be interest in the rematch between Cove and the side that beat them (controversially) in last season’s League Two pyramid playoff (more on that later).
Next Wednesday Cove will welcome Hearts to their new ground, Balmoral Stadium. This will see the very highest ranked side in the group take on the lowest. Cove’s recent friendly victory over Falkirk, while only a friendly, proves they are too good to be written off as “just a Highland League side”. Could the first competitive game at Balmoral create an atmosphere that ups the pressure of the Edinburgh team?
Saturday the 21st of July is a date to note down. Cowdenbeath will host Cove at Central park. Last time this fixture took place three players were sent off and Cove manager John Sheerin described the referee as being “biased towards Cowdenbeath”. That day cost Cove a place in the SPFL pyramid and saved the ‘Blue Brazil’ from a uncertain future. Cove would likely take a hammering in every other game in the group for an opportunity to humiliate their rivals. Cowdenbeath would probably take the same deal, and both sides may have no other choice when you look at the strength of their fellow group C teams.
The final of the groups in the northern section (Yes, Hearts are in the northern section) contains Premiership Dundee, Championship Dunfermline, League One Brechin City and League Two is represented by Stirling Albion and Peterhead.
Neil McCann’s Dundee team will be quite confident of progressing from group D, although Dunfermline were one of the stronger teams in a tough Championship last season, so they will certainly be difficult customers. It also cannot be forgotten that Peterhead are a fan of an upset, they defeated Hearts last season at this stage (albeit Ian Cathro’s Hearts).
Both of our chosen matches come from the same weekend. First, on the 21st Peterhead will host Stirling. This match will draw interest from the other sides in League Two, both will fancy themselves to challenge for the title this season, having finished 2nd and 3rd behind Montrose last term. Peterhead have easily had the best of Stirling in their meetings last season. They played each other four times in the League, followed by a two legged playoff tie. Peterhead won five of these games, with Stirling winning the first – so don’t expect a draw.
The following day Alan Johnston will take his side to Dens Park. This will likely be the toughest challenge Dundee will face, while Dunfermline will look at it as an opportunity to see how they fare against a Premiership team – a league which they will be hoping to secure promotion to. Both sides will have had time to bed in new signings by the time this fixture comes around, so this could be one of the more high quality affairs of the group stages.
The first of the southern groups, Group E has no Premiership sides. Partick Thistle will be in the Championship this season after relegation in 17/18, they are joined by fellow Championship sides Greenock Morton – now managed by Ray McKinnon – and Ayr United. The group is completed by League One’s Stenhousemuir and League Two’s Albion Rovers. Morton are the only side in this group not starting the season in a different league from last season – Thistle and Rovers were relegated, United and Stenny were promoted.
Worth keeping in mind that Morton progressed through the group stages two seasons ago, making it to the Semi Final stage, where they were knocked out by Aberdeen.
Expect this group to be competitive. The lower ranked sides are always capable of pulling off a shock and both of the highest ranked teams – Morton and Thistle – are in transition periods which could make complications for them.
Both Alan Archibald and McKinnon will be hoping to lead their sides to promotion in the Championship this term. So the meeting between the two next Tuesday at Firhill could give supporters somewhat of an aid in predicting which team has a better chance of doing so. Morton have recruited eight players – including Charlie Telfer and a loan deal for Kerr Waddell of Dundee. Partick have also brought in eight players – including Thomas O’Ware from their opponents. So there is plenty of intrigue going into this tie.
When Ayr travel to Firhill on the 28th – the last round of fixtures – the matchup could be pivotal for both sides. It would not be all that surprising to see either of these teams in with a chance of progressing, although it’s unlikely due to how competitive the group will be that either side will run away with it. Ian McCall’s side were promoted from League One last season and they will have to get results against the likes of Partick and Morton if they want to stay in the Championship.
Hamilton and Livingston represent the Premiership in Group F, with Airdrieonians of League One and Annan Athletic & Berwick Rangers of League Two also in the mix. This group will be expected to be predictable in terms of Hamilton and Livingston dominating for the most part. Of course, if this does go as expected, the two Premiership sides will still have to battle it out for assured qualification via finishing first.
Hamilton play hosts to premiership new boys Livingston next Tuesday. Of course this match could, providing no shocks, decide which team finishes in that top spot. Hamilton having been a established top division side for the last few years, having home advantage and Livi’s upheaval during the summer will all act as suggestions that Martin Canning’s side will go in as favourites.
Livingston have not beaten Hamilton since the 12/13 Championship season. Since then the New Douglas Park outfit have been undefeated in eight meetings.
The next most interesting fixture may be between Hamilton and Berwick on Tuesday the 24th. 29 positions separated the two sides last season, with both sides on the complete opposite ends of the SPFL pyramid. The two teams last met in 2007, a League Cup fixture which Accies were victorious in, with a 3-2 score line.
Last year’s beaten finalists Motherwell occupy Group G, alongside Championship Queen of The South, League One Stranraer and League Two side’s Clyde & Edinburgh City. Motherwell’s cup prowess last season will leave them confident of progressing – in fact Stephen Robinson’s team had a 100% record at this stage last year, a group containing the same makeup in terms of representation of leagues, with Edinburgh City joining Well in a group for the second year running.
Motherwell’s game against Queen of the South on Tuesday the 24th has multiple points of interest. It’s the second last game day in the group and it’s the first meeting of the sides since 2004. On that occasion Well were the victors, beating the Dumfries side 3-2 in the Scottish Cup – the two have never faced off in the League Cup.
Another match that sticks out is a South West derby between Queen of the South and Stranraer this Saturday. Separated by just 70 miles, no other clubs lay between these two grounds. Queen of the South were victors by two goals to nil back in the 2015 Challenge cup when the two sides last met. Stranraer haven’t beaten their rivals since the 05/06 Championship season – their only victory against QOTS in over 15 years.
Group H has Premiership sides St Mirren and Kilmarnock, League One side Dumbarton, League Two outfit Queen’s Park and Lowland League Champions Spartans.
The two Premiership teams will open the competition this Friday, live on BT Sport. Steve Clarke’s Killie will play hosts in the League Cup opener and with both sides looking to get off on the right foot, and send a message ahead of the Premiership season; it’s likely to be a good watch.
The game between Kilmarnock and Spartans will represent the biggest gap in positions last season in all of this seasons group stage.
Of course watching seasoned Premiership team Kilmarnock take on Lowland League minnows Spartans will draw interest. Spartans will play hosts on Tuesday the 24th. With the potential of both a shock or the more likely, Killie running riot, it’s not going to be a game that can be accused of not being entertaining.