Two familiar foes of the 2015/16 League one campaign face off for the first time this season as they jostle for the security of midtable.
Dunfermline Athletic won the third tier title while Ayr United were promoted via the playoffs after seeing off Stranraer in a penalty shootout. And even though there was an 18 point difference between the champions and the runners-up in the division that gulf in ability has not immediately translated to the Championship. The Pars opened up a three-point gap following the opening fixtures but went on to lose five straight before last week’s victory over St. Mirren. Whereas the Honest Men lost three on the spin prior to stopping the rot with a draw against the Buddies and back-to-back wins versus Greenock Morton and Hibernian. However, on the previous match day, they fell short when facing Falkirk.
It is fifth up against sixth at Somerset Park, and one thing for sure with the amount of bad blood on the pitch and fever from the stands, it is bound to be an interesting game.
Keys to the game
The midfield battle is extremely important in this match. There is Ian McCall’s 4-4-1-1 system pitted up against Allan Johnston’s flat 4-4-2. You may have Andy Geggan and Nat Wedderburn matching up with Jamie Adams and Ross Docherty, which has the potential to be a ding-dong battle of Giant Haystacks versus Big Daddy proportions. It will be whoever deals with the physical nature of the scrap, and can control possession in there, will have the better of the tie and are more likely to come out with the three points.
Both sides have question marks around their backlines, albeit Ayr have unquestionably strengthened with the acquisition of Conrad Balotoni and Darryl Meggatt, who are capable of being full-time players at this level. Positioning them in between captain Nicky Devlin and Paddy Boyle, and Greg Fleming keeping guard of the goals makes for an outstanding part-time defence on paper. As for the Pars, they have struggled at the back with the absence of their first choice goalie, Sean Murdoch and the inability of Johnston to decide on what personnel makes the best balance at the back. Wedderburn’s return would likely add some protection to the back four in the way he can slot into the centre back spot, when Athletic are in a pinch.
Up top is the only position in which you can say Dunfermline have the edge with the embarrassment of riches that the manager possesses. Farid El Alagui and Gavin Reilly have made a reasonable career of putting the ball in the back of the net in the second tier, whereas Michael Moffat and Nicky Clark have scored at will against part-time opposition in the not too distant past.
The Honest Men are light in that area, with the exception of the returning Craig Moore (on loan from Motherwell), they have brought in untried centre forwards in the professional leagues. Although, if Gary Harkins fancies it, you will struggle to find a better playmaker threading balls through a defence that a striker must love.
Ayr United signings
GK: Jordan Hart – Annan
CB: Michael Rose – Aberdeen
CB: Conrad Balatoni – Kilmarnock
CB: Daryll Meggatt – Dundee
CM: Paul Cairney – Stranraer
AM: Gary Harkins – Dundee
CF: Andy O’Connell – Cobh Ramblers
CF: Craig Moore – Motherwell
CF: Jamie Thomas – Burnley U21
CF: Kevin Nisbet – Partick Thistle U20
Dunfermline Athletic signings
RB: Euan Spark – Dundee United
RCB: Lee Ashcroft – Kilmarnock
LDM: Nat Wedderburn – Inverness Caledonian Thistle
SS: Kallum Higginbotham – Kilmarnock
CF: Nicky Clark – Bury
CF: Farid El Alagui – Hibernian
AM: John Herron – Blackpool
RW: Paul McMullan – Celtic
CF: Gavin Reilly – Heart of Midlothian
Kickoff time, ticket prices and where to watch
Saturday, 15:00pm, Somerset Park.
All tickets – £5.
Key Ayr United player
The goalkeeper was assertive in all five of his performances against the Pars last season. In the only match the Fifers lost against the South Ayrshire outfit, he was the man of the match as he kept an unlikely clean sheet over a year ago. Although with an improved backline helping guard his net this season, he will still be busy in most games with the step up in quality from League One to the Championship, and will need to be on top form, if one of the two favourites for relegation are to avoid the drop in May.
Key Dunfermline Athletic player
Captain fantastic netted the winner against his former club in the Scottish Cup tie last winter, and for whatever reason steps his game up against his former employers. Considering he is one of the top three most important players at the club, it is vital that he is at his best against a side that always gives Athletic a tough game. He will need to get the better of his midfield matchup, who will be looking to disrupt the rhythm that Johnston will want Geggan to dictate.
Former Ayr United players
Andy Geggan, David Hutton and Michael Moffat.
Former Dunfermline Athletic players
Conrad Balatoni (trial) and Paddy Boyle.
What Ayr United are saying
“We have a good rivalry with Dunfermline after last season, all the games had an edge to them and I am sure tomorrow will be no different. We are all really looking forward to it, especially after coming away with no points from a good display last week.” (Ian McCall, manager)
What Dunfermline Athletic are saying
“Ayr are a hard team to play against. We had a lot of close games, Ayr obviously beat us here and we beat them there. It is going to be a competitive game, they have freshened up their squad by bringing in new players. We know they have a lot of quality in their team and seemingly they were unlucky last week against Falkirk. They have been a bit unlucky this season with results” (Allan Johnston, manager)
Last five meetings
12 Mar 2016: Ayr United 0-2 Dunfermline Athletic
13 Feb 2016: Dunfermline Athletic 3-2 Ayr United
12 Dec 2015: Ayr United 1-2 Dunfermline Athletic
28 Nov 2015: Ayr United 0-1 Dunfermline Athletic (Scottish Cup)
12 Sep 2015: Dunfermline Athletic 0-2 Ayr United
1-1 v St Mirren
1-2 v Hibernian (A)
4-3 v St Mirren
2-1 v Hibernian (A)
Ayr United 7/4 Draw 11/4 Dunfermline Athletic 13/8
Ayr United 0-1 Dunfermline Athletic
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