Ross County face a tough challenge in facing recently crowned League Cup winners St. Johnstone. The Perth side won’t be resting on their laurels, as this is the final game before the League splits, and they’re still in the battle for a top 6 place. The Staggies must put the disappointment of more poor refereeing decisions last week against Hibs to the back of their minds if they’re to get anything from this vital game, and pull themselves further from the relegation scrap.
St. Johnstone come into this game in good form, with three wins and a draw in their last five matches- the loss coming against Celtic, and the draw coming against Hamilton. Their previous game was a 1-0 win against Hibs, but this was two weeks ago, so the Saints have had plenty of time to rest and train.
The Perth side tend to employ a 3-5-2, much similar to the one Ross County have been using in recent weeks. Their back three heads away long balls without a second thought (which means that County can’t play the same way as last week), and they have no shortage of attacking threat, with players like Guy Melamed who have the quality to punish teams that are slack.
On the injury front, Shaun Rooney is unlikely to feature, while Murray Davidson’s spell on the sidelines looks set to continue.
While a potential top six finish is out of the hands of St. Johnstone (it’s dependent on whether or not Hamilton can take points off St. Mirren two points above), they’ll know the job they have to do against the Staggies regardless. Callum Davidson’s men have tasted silverware this season which only adds to the winning mentality he seems to have injected into the side. They have a team of players that know what their jobs are and carry them out very well. This will make them very hard to beat. At the other end of the pitch, they haven’t failed to score in a game since their 1-0 defeat at the hands of Rangers in early February.
What do County have to do to win?
As I said earlier, St. Johnstone deal with long balls into their half no problem. This is how the League Cup Final against Livingston looked so straight forward for them. If County play the same way they did against the Hibees last week, then there’s a problem. The Staggies lumped the ball up the pitch at every opportunity, and despite the aerial presence of Jordan White it proved incredibly predictable and easy for Hibs to deal with. St. Johnstone would deal with it even better than Hibs did, due to the composure among their defence.
To win, I think County must try and play it on the ground as much as possible. Under John Hughes, we’ve truly gotten firing when we string a few passes together, and this is how we create the most chances. With Shaun Rooney injured, and Michael O’Halloran taking his right wing back spot, I expect us to try to get in behind him as much as possible, as he is a potential defensive weak link. Also, despite his height, Jordan White has played his best football for the Staggies when the ball is played into his feet- bringing the play up to the opposition half by drawing fouls and laying it off to forward runners. Because of this, I think even if County come under heavy pressure they should attempt to play it on the ground to White, as he’s capable of earning us precious yards up the pitch.
With a passing game comes risk of course- trying to play out from the back is what caused us to concede a penalty which led to St. Johnstone’s equaliser last time the sides met. Ross County have got the balance between risk and reward wrong too many times this season, but under John Hughes, it’s becoming more accurate. It’s crucial this continues. Making the decision to blast it as far away from the goal as possible is still very necessary on occasion, but so is knowing when to try and impose ourselves on the game and put pressure on the Saints.
Danger Man: Guy Melamed
Despite not featuring in the League Cup final, Melamed has been in very good form of late, with three goals in as many matches. His goals, bar the penalty he scored against Motherwell, have been individual moments of quality out of nowhere that changed the game in an instant, making him extremely dangerous. If County are playing well, there’s no room to get comfortable, as with the quality he possesses he can undo any hard work in an instant.
Melamed is incredibly strong with both feet, as shown when he curled the ball seemingly effortlessly from around 25 yards into the Motherwell net on his weaker left foot. He had time and space, but to get it past the in form Liam Kelly in the Motherwell goal was sensational. Ross Laidlaw will have to be on his toes for 90 minutes if he’s to keep a clean sheet. Judging by recent weeks, there’s every chance he’ll have to come up against a penalty, and Melamed put one into the bottom left hand corner of Motherwell’s net in that 3-0 win.
His goal against Hamilton was the image of composure. From a simple long ball, he was given time and space to control it on his right foot and prod into the net. It was a bizarrely poor goal to give away from a Hamilton point of view but both the touch and finish from Guy Melamed were of outrageous quality.
The Saints frontman will have a say on the outcome of the game, there’s no doubt in my mind. If County can keep him uncharacteristically quiet however, they have a big chance of picking up a result.
Staggies One to Watch: Iain Vigurs
Vigurs has been back in training over the past week after being injured, but it’s unknown whether he is back to full fitness. If he is, he’ll be vital to the type of play that will give County the best chance.
County’s captain is exceptional at carrying the ball out of defence, and with his decision making having remarkably improved under John Hughes, will be vital to passing the ball forward to the ball carries who have the ability to hurt St. Johnstone.
The transition between defence and attack was dreadful last week against Hibs, with the ball being hurriedly cleared up the pitch straight to the Edinburgh side every time the Staggies got the ball. Having Vigurs back, with his composure and quality would see this transition a lot smoother and ultimately, more threatening to the opposition.
Vigurs’ only goal so far this season came against tomorrow’s opponents, and if he can repeat the favour, or even assist it, then that will go a long way towards helping the Staggies win a game that would drag them further from the bottom of the table.
I feel the key for County tomorrow will be composure and decision making. Quick, efficient passing has seen them earn their best results of the season. Attempting to do it in the wrong places however, has seen them fall into the situation they’re now in- a relegation battle.
As for St. Johnstone, they’ll be resolute, tough to get by, and dangerous on the front foot. Every player they have does their job admirably, so it’s on the Staggies to make these jobs a misery.