TOM DUTHIE: Dundee United and Robbie Neilson face toughest game so far in bid for Premiership return

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“Every game in the Championship is a big one”.

That’s the standard quote from almost every player or manager who’s done a pre-match Press conference in Scotland’s second tier this, or in any other, season.

And while it’s repetitive, to be fair to them, they’re only being accurate. While it may not quite have the quality of the Premiership, in most seasons there can be little argument the Championship is the most competitive of the country’s four top divisions.

United boss Robbie Neilson knows what’s at stake in Dingwall.

This season’s no different, as a glance at the table shows. While Ayr and Ross County have been setting the pace at the top, with a third of the season gone every one of the top five teams will still believe they are in the running for automatic promotion.

If you add the play-off places for those finishing between second and fourth, you’d say the number who believe they play can be playing top-flight football next term extends to seven.

For all their recent troubles, now they’ve got back winning, Dunfermline will feel they can move up into the top four between now and the end of April.

That leaves just part-time Alloa, for whom survival would be success, and under-achievers Falkirk and Partick Thistle as teams about whom it’s safe to say promotion is not on the agenda.

Going back to that opening quote, it’s why it’s uttered so often and is always true.

While, though, every game in the Championship is indeed big, there can be no mistake about it – Dundee United’s trip to Ross County this weekend is massive.

Dundee United have been resurgent under Robbie Neilson

And, for United, it’s certainly their biggest so far, one that might just prove season-defining.

Because, for all the excellent work put in by new boss Robbie Neilson and the improvement in results and performance he’s brought about, the early-season form means he’s been playing catch-up.

Even if the Tangerines take all three points home from Dingwall, they’ll still be trailing the Staggies, though back-to-back draws from them means the gap would be down to just a point.

Even with a draw, that gap would be comfortably manageable, particularly if current form becomes the norm under the new boss.

Lose and it would stretch to seven points to County and possibly as much as 10 to Ayr. Even in mid-November that would leave United with a mountain to climb and mean Neilson and his players had little room for further error.

There also has to be the question of the psychological damage another County defeat would inflict. The teams have met twice this term and the Highlanders have come out on top in both.

They won 1-0 in the Betfred Cup at the Global Energy Arena in July and, of course, ended Csaba Laszlo’s tenure as United manager with a crushing 5-1 league Tannadice win in September. That home defeat was a big blow and another reversal would be a further big dent to confidence.

Former Dundee United man Billy Mckay grabbed a hat-trick when Ross County won 5-1 at Tannadice in September. Mckay is the Championship Player of the Month for October.

United, though, will head north on Saturday in confident mood. As well as in terms of their general play, when it comes to organisation, they’ve looked much improved under this manager.

By making important changes, but not too many, he’s got them playing at a higher tempo, both in possession and when it comes to winning the ball back.

That has seen chances created and the wins starting to flow again. Even the one blemish so far, a stalemate with draw specialists Inverness, they did enough to expect to have won the game.

What there’s no getting away from is Saturday brings Neilson’s rejuvenated team their sternest test to date. For all the encouraging work put in recently, if they don’t pass it, the next few months will be a long and hard slog to get back in contention.

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