Scottish League Cup group-by-group guide: Can anyone buck trend?

Andy Irving scored and was sent off as Hearts started their campaign with a penalty shoot-out win over Dundee United
Andy Irving, right, scored and was sent off as Hearts started with a penalty shoot-out win over Dundee United

The Scottish domestic football season began on Friday, with Hearts and Dundee United playing in a thrilling opening match of the Scottish League Cup.

In the three seasons since the competition's group stage was re-introduced, only Motherwell have progressed from there all the way to the final, with Celtic lifting the trophy each time after being given a bye along with Scotland's other European participants.

Can anyone buck that trend this year as they look to qualify as group winners or one of the four best runners-up?

Group A

Dundee United head coach Robbie Neilson will hope the heavy investment in new players shows signs of paying off this time as the Tannadice side face Hearts in Group A ahead of their attempt to end their four-year stay outside the top flight.

Hearts' third-place finish in their group two seasons ago proved to be the proverbial final nail for Ian Cathro as head coach - and pressure will mount on current manager Craig Levein if his Premiership side start the new season the way they finished the last, failing to win in six games. Friday's penalty shoot-out bonus point after their 1-1 draw with United will certainly help his cause.

Three part-time sides - East Fife of League One and League Two duo Stenhousemuir and Cowdenbeath - make up the numbers.

One to watch: Lawrence Shankland was top scorer in last season's League Cup and the striker will look to repeat that after leaving Ayr United for Dundee United.

Group B

Promoted Ross County will test their Premiership credentials against St Johnstone in a group also containing Forfar Athletic and Montrose - who both impressed in reaching the play-offs for a place in the Championship - plus relegated Brechin City.

County co-managers Steve Ferguson and Stuart Kettlewell will hope to repeat the success of Livingston, who won their group ahead of Hamilton Academical, rather than the failure of fellow promoted side St Mirren, who flirted with relegation after creeping into the last 16 and being thrashed by Aberdeen.

One to watch: Jason Kerr is St Johnstone's new captain at the age of 22, with manager Tommy Wright saying it would take "a lot of money" to prise the centre-half away from the club.

Group C

Questions will be asked if Hibernian do not romp home in a group containing four part-time sides after heavy investment in Paul Heckingbottom's squad.

However, League One champions Arbroath have already beaten the Easter Road club, as well as Hearts and a young Celtic side in pre-season friendlies, while Alloa Athletic surprised many by avoiding relegation from the Championship last season. That success, though, has since led to the loss of manager Jim Goodwin to St Mirren.

Arbroath and Alloa will be hoping for another good start having finished second and third in the same group last season, just behind Ross County and ahead of Dundee United.

League Two sides Stirling Albion and Elgin City complete the section.

One to watch: After a year on the sidelines with Celtic, midfielder Scott Allan will be bursting to brush off the ring rust with Hibs.

Group D

Relegated Dundee prepare for life in the Championship under a new, untested manager in the shape of former youth coach James McPake. They were given a soft landing in a group without top-flight opposition, but still face a tricky test or two.

Inverness Caledonian Thistle will be looking to continue a gradual improvement in the Championship that took them into the promotion play-offs last season; Raith Rovers should again be among the sides challenging at the top of League One; and Jim McInally's Peterhead ought to be on a high after winning League Two.

Highland League champions Cove Rangers will also be in the section as they prepare for their first season in the senior leagues under former Dundee manager Paul Hartley.

One to watch: Shaun Byrne has taken a gamble by moving down a division from Livingston and his combative style in midfield could be important for Dundee this season.

Group E

Motherwell will hope that having Greenock Morton in their group is a good omen having reached the final two seasons ago after topping a group containing the Cappielow side.

Queen of the South, looking to put a flirtation with relegation behind them, are also familiar foes, having finished second behind the Premiership side in their section last season.

League One side Dumbarton and League Two's Annan Athletic were drawn together two seasons ago and are expected to finish in the bottom two spots.

One to watch: After scoring 43 goals in 45 appearances last season, Stephen Dobbie's goalscoring prowess shows no signs of drying up at the age of 36.

Group F

This group - concentrated in a 17-mile radius - has proved logistically tricky because of summer work at Clyde's Broadwood and at Hampden, home of Queen's Park.

The League One newcomers had planned to hold their home matches at Premiership Hamilton Academical's Hope Stadium, but that plan was partially scuppered when the sides were drawn together. Instead, Clyde will host the Premiership side at Stenhousemuir's Ochilview instead.

League Two Queen's, meanwhile, will hold both their 'home' matches at Airdrieonians' Penny Cars Stadium, including the meeting with Championship Partick Thistle. It means that three of the Glasgow club's games will be played in Airdrie. Follow all that?

One to watch: Partick Thistle manager Gary Caldwell hopes that former Scotland team-mate Kenny Miller, at the age of 39, will provide the goals they need to challenge for promotion.

Group G

Among the turmoil of relegation from the Championship and a potential change of ownership, Falkirk have stuck by manager Ray McKinnon and signed a host of experienced players that, on paper, ought to win League One at a canter.

The contrast could not be starker with Ian McCall's experience at group opponents Ayr United, who seem intent on investing the kind of funds that will turn last season's surprise promotion challengers into Championship title contenders. The loss of the division's top scorer, Shankland will be most keenly felt.

Their relative strengths will be tested against a Livingston side looking to repeat early season form that ensured their Premiership safety and arrest a worrying second-half decline.

Berwick Rangers, adjusting to life outside the SPFL after relegation to the Lowland League, and League One's Stranraer are the makeweights.

One to watch: Aberdeen will be hoping McCall can do with midfielder Frank Ross on loan what he did in turning former Pittodrie striker Shankland into a hot property.

Group H

St Mirren begin the season under their third manager in a year and with their squad again needing rebuilt. Not this time after promotion and the poaching of their boss but because uncertainty over the future of now departed Oran Kearney means only two new players have arrived to compensate for 12 departures. Just as well Jim Goodwin proved he could bring results with limited resources at Alloa last season.

His side's likely main challengers, Dunfermline Athletic, have topped their group two seasons running but are themselves in transition, with Stevie Crawford attempting to arrest the decline that led to the sacking of Allan Johnston while having to replace a host of experienced campaigners with cheaper, younger replacements.

Albion Rovers and Edinburgh City both had spells last season that will give them hope for the League Two campaign, while Lowland League champions East Kilbride will be out to show they can again challenge for a step up to the SPFL.

One to watch: St Mirren will hope they have signed the Tony Andreu that impressed in his first stint with Hamilton rather than the enigma that returned after spells with Norwich City and Coventry City.

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