Celtic v Hibernian
Wednesday, 6th February
Celtic Park, Glasgow
A struggling, Lenny-less Hibs side come down to Glasgow to face off against Celtic, who have not dropped a point at home all season.
The champions have started off 2019 in excellent form, with five wins from five, all of them clean sheets, and that is not what the visitors would have wanted coming in. Celtic have dominated all comers at Parkhead, averaging nearly three goals a game there, and Brendan Rodgers will want his squad firing on all cylinders ahead of important ties in the Scottish Cup and the Europa League.
You have to be pretty impressed with what Celtic have been able to do between the lines, given their current injury list comprises 14 players, nearly a third of the squad. While we can debate why these injuries keep happening, we also must give thanks to the Callum McGregors and (yes) the Scott Sinclairs, who are Old Reliables in hoops and are keeping the motor ticking over while their teammates slowly get back to fitness. Kieran Tierney and Oliver Ntcham have returned to training, but there’s no indication either of them are near match fitness. However, Rodgers still has an excellent eleven to call on, and there should be more than enough to handle Hibs.
Hibernian are, to put it mildly, in a bit of a state at the moment. Neil Lennon’s departure from the club occurred in strange and mysterious circumstances, and that cannot be helping morale at Easter Road. Hibs are a frankly underperforming club who sit seventh in the Scottish Premiership table (W8 D8 L8, what consistency), five points off of sixth place, with only one win in their last seven. Hibs put in a fair effort when Aberdeen came to town at the weekend, but in a tight affair they only saw 30% possession at home, and lost 2-1.
Eddie May has been named caretaker manager at Hibs, and this will be his third match in the big chair. Word is that he turns out to dislike management, which is just the kind of confidence you want in a manager, and he’ll be anxious to get a full-time replacement in. Ex-Barnsley and Leeds gaffer Paul Heckingbottom is the odds-on favorite at this point, but no change will be made by Wednesday evening. Their ability or inability to navigate February will likely dictate their place in the top or bottom six come the split, but at the moment Hibs need to do better.
Stats & Facts
- In a seven-match stretch since defeating Celtic on 16 December, Hibs have only scored more than one goal in a game once.
- Hibernian haven’t won at Celtic Park since January 2010.
- It has seemed recently as if Celtic leave all their scoring until late, but at home this season they have scored their first goal on an average of 33 minutes. (Away, it’s even earlier: 25 minutes)
Last Five Meetings
- 16/12/2018 | Hibernian – Celtic 2-0 | Scottish Premiership
- 20/10/2018| Celtic – Hibernian 4-2 | Scottish Premiership
- 21/04/2018| Hibernian – Celtic 2-1 | Scottish Premiership
- 27/01/2018| Celtic – Hibernian 1-0 | Scottish Premiership
- 10/12/2017| Hibernian – Celtic 2-2 | Scottish Premiership
The change in manager aside, Hibs were busy in the January transfer window, adding Ryan Gauld in on loan, Burundian internationalist Gael Bigirimana (late of Rangers and Motherwell) and right back Darnell Johnson, in on loan from Leicester City. All of them are candidates to feature in this one, but it’s going to be tough for Johnson to displace captain (and third-high scorer) David Gray at the position. Gauld is an undeniable talent, but his seasons in Portugal have not been all that successful, and it remains to be seen what he can offer in Edinburgh.
Forwards Stevie Mallan and Florian Kamberi have an impressive 21 goals between them on the season, and Oli Shaw has chipped in with seven of his own, but don’t expect all three of them to start. Kamberi loves a goal against Celtic and will almost surely start up front on his own; Hibs might go with a 4-1-4-1 or a 4-4-1-1 which would dictate where Mallan is positioned. Paul Hanlon and hatchet man Darren McGregor are Hibs’ only two healthy centre-backs, with the talented youngster Ryan Porteous set to miss the rest of the season after knee surgery.
Keeper Ofir Marciano is back from injury and has regained the number-one spot – I always thought Bogdan was better, myself. Rounding Hibs out in midfield will be stalwart Vykintas Slivka and the pacy Daryl Horgan, with Mark Milligan or Bigirimana in a 6-type role.
With the aforementioned 14 injuries within the squad, Brendan Rodgers is getting to the point where he has somewhat of a selection headache going on. The latest ones, a foot injury to the just-returned Odsonne Edouard and leg issues for James Forrest and Mikael Lustig, are certainly going to force changes up and down the park. To make matters worse, Kristoffer Ajer, who’d been having an excellent 2019, was sent off towards the end of the match at St Johnstone on Sunday. He’ll miss this one.
Ajer’s replacement will be one of Nir Bitton, Jack Hendry, or (heaven forfend) Marvin Compper. The fact that by far the best option of those three isn’t a natural centre-back says everything you need to know about the other two. Bitton is a calm, capable player, however, and he has had success playing at the back for Celtic in the past. Hibs do have a potent attack, however, so both he and Jozo Simunovic will need to be on top of their game and, more importantly, communicate well as they are unfamiliar defensive partners.
Scott Bain should take his place in goals for the sixth straight match, and why not, as he hasn’t allowed a goal in the previous five. Although he hasn’t had all that much to do, when called upon he has been excellent – illustrated in part by the series of saves against Airdrie and a brilliant instinctive kick-save in the early stages of the match this past weekend. Hopefully he will help settle down the unfamiliar defense in front of him.
Jeremy Toljan will be “forced” into the starting spot at right back thanks to Lustig’s injury, but aside from Lustig being a loss, that’s not such a bad thing. Toljan is very talented but needs game time, and although his performances have been inconsistent, a healthy Lustig is an important member of the squad and is also potential cover at centre-back. It’ll be good for Toljan to get his first start at home, and the fans will be right behind him. Emilio Izaguirre, who I thought was excellent at St Johnstone, will start at left back.
Callum McGregor and Scott Brown will again start in their usual midfield positions; McGregor has simply been sublime of late. Brown has been by turns brilliant and maddening since his return to the lineup, making the easy passes look hard (his short pass back to Ajer resulted in the sending-off) and the hard passes look easy (his sublime ball to Weah to provide the secondary assist for Forrest’s goal). His leadership, however, is beyond question and with the lineup changing around him it’s vital to have his presence on the pitch.
Up front, you would think Edouard would have had a good shot at starting on Wednesday night but the foot injury sustained in Perth will put an end to that. Oliver Burke, who looked strong and hungry at the weekend, has been a fine replacement at the striker position but Rodgers cannot overlook the contributions of Timothy Weah. The young American has scored three goals so far in green and white, and has become an instant fan favorite, but I feel that he’s much more effective coming off the bench. Tired defenders have no answer for him at all and he has been supplied very well by his teammates (and indeed returned the favor with a brilliantly weighted ball for the assist on Forrest’s goal).
Ryan Christie injured his ribs on Sunday, but was able to finish out the match, albeit very painfully. Hopefully he’ll be ready Wednesday, as there aren’t many other options at his position. With two important fixtures on the near horizon, Rodgers won’t risk James Forrest’s legs in this one, and Mikey Johnston will likely get another chance to show what he can do. Johnston has not been particularly impressive, but has the talent and ability to cause Hibs some bother. Scott Sinclair rounds out the starting eleven, and he will be relied upon to provide experience and threat on the left; Johnston and Toljan being somewhat of an unknown quantity on the right.
Key points to watch
- How will Hibs cope without Lennon? Their former manager, it could be said, had Celtic better figured out than most of his peers in Scotland, and whether it was Celtic Park or Easter Road his teams always gave Celtic all they could handle and sometimes a bit more. It remains to be seen exactly how much his motivation and tactics had to do with that success, but his passion was never in question and that’s hard to duplicate.
- How will Celtic cope without half their squad? Injuries and a one-match ban have really taken a bite out of the Hoops’ available players, and squad rotation hasn’t worked out well for Rodgers this season. I count four “new” starters in this one, and possibly five if Christie doesn’t make it.
- Referee watch: Craig Thomson is the whistler appointed to this fixture, and after the penaltyfest at Ibrox this past weekend, all eyes will be on the refs up and down Scotland. Thomson is at least better at concealing his incompetence (or bias, if you prefer that explanation) than Son of Dallas, so expect unpenalised kicking (from Hibs only), free-kicks being given the wrong way, that sort of thing, instead of the black comedy from Saturday.
Celtic 3, Hibernian 0
The original match poster is by Frankie Mitchell (@madebyfrankie). You can buy a print of this and all of Frankie’s other illustrations and drawings from her online shop – her work is also available on t-shirts, stickers and many other products.