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Page last updated at 10:27 GMT, Friday, 17 April 2009 11:27 UK

The joy of sixth in the SPL

Mark McGhee (right) and Mixu Paatelainen
Paatelainen (left) and McGhee are managers under pressure this weekend

By Colin Moffat

The Scottish Premier League split has its fair share of critics, but any system that can make interesting the joust to finish sixth, with five games of the season to go, must surely have some merit.

Going into the last round of fixtures before the league divides in half, Hibs hold a one-point advantage over Motherwell in the battle for the one remaining spot in the glamorous upstairs section.

But the Fir Park side have the easier looking game, hosting St Mirren on Saturday lunchtime, while Rangers visit Easter Road on Sunday.

Hibs, who also have a better goal difference, will know what is required of them, but they had a similar advantage on Monday when all they could muster was a rather fortunate draw in Paisley.

Along with a degree of prestige, the winners of this particular contest stand to gain financially, with a combination of prize money and potential gate receipts making a difference of some £300,000.

All the losers can look forward to is five matches against teams scrapping for survival.

With no prospect of relegation, the team placed seventh at Sunday teatime will have little appetite for the remaining fixtures.

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At best, it will provide an opportunity to try out a few youngsters.

St Mirren, who were the better team against Hibs on Monday, are one of the sides involved in the five-way fight to avoid the drop and will therefore be no pushovers.

And, of course, Rangers are in the hunt for the title and are sure to be fired up in Edinburgh.

"My players will be as motivated as the Rangers players," said Hibs manager Mixu Paatelainen.

"We know the stakes, we know it is a massive game, and we realise also that it is a very difficult one, because of Rangers.

"They are chasing the title every year and by merit again this season. They are full of quality players who win week-in, week-out and it will be very difficult.

"Obviously, we will be very positive in the dressing-room and trying to get everybody physically and mentally ready.

"We have beaten Celtic at Easter Road this season, so why can't we beat Rangers?"

Paatelainen's positivity is laudable and Hibs tend to make life difficult for the Old Firm in Edinburgh, but they have won just two of their last 18 home encounters with Rangers.

McGhee, who has criticised the SPL for not scheduling both sides to play at the same time, said: "I always thought it would come down to this last game.

Mark reynolds and Denes Rosa
Hibs and Motherwell are evenly-matched sides

"It's really in Hibs' hands. Even if we win, Hibs can still make the top six.

"But, given the run we've had since Christmas, we have to be satisfied we're in this position and, if we make it, that's fantastic.

"If we don't, I hope it's because Hibs have won their game.

"If you ask me do I want our position or theirs, I would take their position over ours."

Hibs have been frustratingly inconsistent this term, with a significant section of their support growing weary of Paatelainen's long ball tactics and his predilection for deploying players out of their familiar positions.

Motherwell have recovered from a shaky opening to mount their challenge and McGhee enjoys greater popularity among the Fir Park faithful, having steered the club into Europe at the first time of asking last season.

McGhee is likely to get the easier ride should he be the one to miss out, while Paatelainen's future would be under a dark cloud of uncertainty.

The teams are evenly matched, having each taken four points from their three head-to-heads this season and both go into the weekend on the back of good form.

Hibs have lost just one of their last nine games, but six of those have been draws, while Motherwell have lost only two of their last 14 league outings.

The race could end in a dead heat. A 0-0 draw at Fir Park and a 4-0 triumph for Rangers is one outcome that would result in the teams meeting for a nail-biting one-off decider.

Who knew the joy of sixth could be so thrilling?



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see also
Supporters split over SPL set-up
14 Apr 09 |  Scottish Premier


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