Aberdeen, Motherwell, Livingston or Hibernian - who will claim third?

Derek McInnes, Stephen Robinson, Gary Holt and Jack Ross
Derek McInnes, Stephen Robinson, Gary Holt and Jack Ross are all in with a chance of guiding their sides to third

The race for third place looked straightforward going into the winter break. Either Motherwell or Aberdeen would enjoy European football next season. It was one or the other.

Livingston and Hibernian were closer to a relegation play-off place than third, both sitting 12 points back. But just seven rounds of fixtures later, that deficit has been more than halved, with those four clubs all separated by only five points.

With 10 rounds of fixtures left, the fight for third is well and truly on. BBC Scotland takes a look at the contenders and who might emerge victorious.

Motherwell

Wheels coming off Fir Park side?

For the majority of the season, Motherwell have been in the driving seat for third - but the wheels seem to have come off in the last couple of months.

Just one win in their last eight means the Lanarkshire side are on their worst run of the season. Although they have a game in hand over the teams around them and still sit third, they will need to turn that form around to take full advantage.

The departure of forward James Scott to Hull City on deadline day was a blow - the 19-year-old was improving at a rapid rate and played a massive part in the team's creativity going forward. Their last game out against Hamilton Accies - a 0-0 draw - underlined the creative spark has gone from the side in recent weeks.

Winger Rolando Aarons, who arrived on loan from Newcastle United the same day, has shown promise as a replacement, though, and netted in the 4-4 Scottish Cup goalfest against St Mirren.

He may need to continue to hit the ground running. With mainstay defender Jake Carroll suffering a serious injury in the loss to St Mirren, the club are down to the "bare bones" according to manager Stephen Robinson - seven players from the first-team squad are now absent.

On paper though, Motherwell have an easier run of games than nearest competitors Aberdeen. The Fir Park side face bottom-half teams in four of their next five games - before a final game against Rangers prior the split - and have lost just three times this season to teams in the bottom six.

Friday the 13th could be an unlucky and fateful night for one of the sides - one could take a significant step towards third when Motherwell host Aberdeen just two games before the split.

Aberdeen

Daunting run for McInnes' men

Over 480 consecutive minutes without a goal. Five league games without a win. Aberdeen entered the 2020's with a whisper rather than a roar.

But after a morale-boosting run including a draw against Rangers, a victory over Hamilton Academical, and a dramatic Scottish Cup replay 4-3 win over Kilmarnock, things started to look positive for the Pittodrie outfit once more. Then, typically of this start-stop season, they suffered a 2-1 home defeat to Ross County - a side they had taken six goals off across their previous two meetings.

They were ahead before Lewis Ferguson's red card though - and the fresh striking partnership of Curtis Main and Sam Cosgrove already looked promising in the opening half-hour.

Main had impressed in place of Cosgrove against Hamilton, after the latter suffered a goal drought - a 3-1 win that blasted the cobwebs off the opposition netting. Main then offered little threat against Celtic, or in the first-half of the Scottish Cup win over Kilmarnock, but Aberdeen scored four goals across the second-half and extra-time after Cosgrove joined Main upfront.

After that goalfest, McInnes decided to try the two upfront together from the start against County - and after 28 minutes Cosgrove provided the assist for Main's opener.

While that loss may spell danger, that partnership could be the key for McInnes' men to finish the season on a high and claw their way back to third place - and their manager has a track record of finishing strongly.

Last season, McInnes guided his team to five wins out of their last seven matches. The season before, they only lost one of their last 10 - beating champions Celtic on the closing day.

To close this season though, Aberdeen will face all three of their competitors for third spot before the split, and will likely play them all again. Should teams remain where they are in the table, the Pittodrie side will face teams from the top half in eight of their remaining 10 fixtures.

Aberdeen's form has been significantly better against the bottom six, too. They have only taken 12 points from 12 games against top-half teams, compared to 29 in 16 games against bottom-half sides.

Livingston

Home comfort for Holt's side

Livingston have been in scintillating form at home this season, with their 27 points from 13 games bettered only by Celtic and Rangers. They have conceded fewer goals than any team at their own ground.

Away from home is where things start to get troublesome for Gary Holt's side, with 11 points in 15 matches. By comparison, Aberdeen have claimed 20 points from the same number of fixtures, and Motherwell 23 points despite playing one game fewer.

Their recent form suggests they could pull it off though - a hard-fought 1-1 draw at Easter Road against Hibs had Gary Holt "buzzing" at his side's hunger to hold on for the point.

And three of their last five games before the split are at home - but they do face Aberdeen and Celtic, as well as a Hearts side with everything to play for.

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Livingston lost a key player last month when goalkeeper Matija Sarkic was recalled by Aston Villa, but replacement Robby McCrorie has kept three clean sheets in six games and only conceded four goals. He also had a man of the match performance in the Hibs draw, when he saved a Scott Allan penalty.

As well as finding what has proved to be a more than suitable replacement goalkeeper, Holt has otherwise held on to his key players and not had many injury setbacks. It puts his side in a strong position to end the season on a high - should they maintain their home form and continue to improve their away form.

Hibernian

High-quality recruitment sparks charge

Jack Ross' side have hit a rich vein of form in recent weeks, losing just one of their last seven matches - a narrow defeat by Rangers. They have ramped up their goals output too, scoring nine in their last five.

The key to their recent success has been savvy recruitment in January. Florian Kamberi left for Rangers, but midfielder Greg Docherty came the other way and has already made a big impact, with a stunning goal and man-of-the-match performance at Kilmarnock.

Striker Marc McNulty has hit the ground running too, scoring four goals since rejoining the club last month, and Paul McGinn has also settled into the right-back position since signing from St Mirren. Christian Doidge is in hot form of late too - he has eight goals in his last 10 games.

Five points off third-placed Motherwell, Hibs may appear to be the outsiders in the race for a European spot, but their strong form suggests they have a chance.

They have only suffered one loss in their last 11 home league matches, and welcome Hearts and St Johnstone before the split.

Earlier this season, Hibs joined their Edinburgh rivals at the bottom of the table - but if they play their cards right in the final stretch they could have a serious chance of claiming third place.

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