Hamilton Academical v Celtic (SPFL Premiership)
Saturday, 23rd November
New Douglas Park, Hamilton
Top of the league coming off a positive international break, Celtic now look to secure their handle on the Premiership.
A barnstorming six weeks where the Hoops seemed to beat everyone in front of them (including the third-place team in Germany) was only slightly derailed by their most recent match, a frustrating 0-0 at Livingston. This weekend’s opponents and hosts, Hamilton Accies, will have surely spent the last two weeks studying tape of the challenge Livi gave for all 90 minutes. Will Hamilton, who have allowed four times as many goals as Livingston, be able to replicate their success and take points off the champions?
After the thrilling and apparently enervating 2-1 Europa League victory over visiting Leipzig, Celtic will have quickly been forgiven for the scoreless draw at Livingston. The home side were disciplined and tough, and although they should have been down to ten men early on, were well worth their point. Celtic should be fairly well-rested despite the typically busy international break, and their fans will be looking for resumption of normal attacking service from many on-form contributors.
Hamilton will have always come in with a game plan to sit back and absorb pressure, and get an assist in slowing down the Celtic attack from their terrible plastic pitch. Matchday 14 in Scotland finds Accies in their usual doldrums near, but not at, the bottom of the table; they sit ninth, six points off the bottom but well back of eighth-placed Hibs(!). They have been on the end of some truly crooked scorelines this season (6-0, 4-0, 4-1, 4-1) and, having already lost to Celtic in August, will do well to steal anything from this one.
- Hamilton have scored at most one goal in 12 of their 13 league matches this season.
- Hamilton have lost 4 of their last 6, being outscored 17-1 in those 4 defeats.
- Celtic have kept clean sheets in five of their last six games domestically.
- Hamilton have lost their last seven against the Hoops, going back to a 1-1 draw in February 2016.
Last Five Meetings:
Hamilton will miss out on tough guy Darian MacKinnon, suspended for the match. Aside from captain Dougie Imrie, returning from his own suspension, a visiting fan would be hard-pressed to recognize anyone in Accies’ typical patchwork squad. Ziggy Gordon, who some may remember from his time at Partick Thistle, will play in defense; and forward James Keatings, who had spells with both Edinburgh clubs and was with Championship side Dundee United last year, is back with Hamilton.
One bit of drama for the otherwise extremely boring Accies is the news that Slovakian international goalkeeper Jan Mucha has been training with the side and if a deal can be signed he may very well displace Gary Woods between the sticks. With Celtic’s attack of late, though, who is in goal for Hamilton might… all be… a bit… Mucha Muchness? (It sounded better in my head).
Celtic have been sending out more or less the same eleven of late, causing great panic to most Scottish defenses. The most dangerous man in a whole posse of danger men is clearly James Forrest, who scored five goals for Scotland over the break, and who has netted seven in his last domestic five for his club. Accies will absolutely be keying on him. Celtic’s other forwards will want to work within the spaces left by defenders dragged out of position by Forrest.
I have always been on record as not loving international breaks; besides being vectors for injuries, players are flying literally around the world, often simply to play in friendlies. However, Celtic seemed to have escaped this one unscathed, and the good news continues with the story that Leigh Griffiths (the Hoops’ latest emissary to the Springfield Mystery Spot) is back available for the squad, although he must be still miles off match pace and I’d be surprised to see him this weekend. Scott Brown is also close to a return of his own. But with a bit of a tough run of fixtures right up until the new year, some squad rotation is going to be necessary. Like new signings, so they are…
Besides Griffiths, the only other news on the injury front is Kristoffer Ajer, whose already handsome, angular face was made less handsome but more angular at Livingston, when he suffered a broken orbital bone after a head knock with a Livi forward. His surgery was a success, but I wouldn’t expect him back before the new year. Finally, would I be surprised to see Michael Johnston, who just inked a new five-year deal, in the squad in some fashion this weekend? No, I would not!
- Plastic Pitch vs Good Football: I asked two weeks ago if the pitch would “be Livi’s patchy, rubbery 12th man?” and the answer was an emphatic “Och aye”. It is difficult to have a strategy to play passing football on these things, and it’s the kind of thing that can get into players’ heads.
- Renaissance Scott vs. Temporary Flash Scott: Sinclair was brought back into the starting eleven after Callum McGregor moved back to midfield, and has oscillated between excellent and meh performances. Will the real Scott Sinclair please stand up?
- Don Robertson vs Don Rodgers: You may remember this guy from Ross County away, when he was conned into giving a penalty against Celtic, sent off Scott Brown, then phoned up Brendan Rodgers to apologise. (Yet another “too little, too late, so sorry” from Scottish officiating.)
- Hamilton Plan vs Hamilton Heart: Having a game plan to sit in and defend is no good unless you have the heart and discipline to stick to it for 90 minutes. Hamilton’s defense is the second-leakiest in the league; the odds are not in their favour.
Advanced Stats (from ModernFitba.com)
- While Celtic only went top of the league table after the last round, they’ve been leading the xG table throughout the season, underlining the fact that they’ve always had the best underlying performances of any team in the league, if not results.
- Accies is in a group of three teams together with Dundee and St. Mirren that have been considerably worse than the rest of the league. Don’t be fooled by their close proximity to Motherwell on the league table; there is a big gulf in quality when it comes to the chances created and conceded by each team.
- Hamilton have actually been quite consistent in their performances, only really being outplayed in their games against Celtic and St. Johnstone (twice). They fully deserved their draw away to Kilmarnock and if you exclude penalties, they actually created the higher quality of chances (measured in xG) against Rangers.
- You can clearly see the direction of Celtic’s form curve on the above graph, and even in their draw away to Livingstone they were quite superior when it came to chances created and conceded. They recorded their biggest xG difference of the season in the home game versus Accies in August.
- Celtic have taken the most shots and conceded the fewest, with Accies second last in both categories. One interesting point is that while Hamilton don’t create much, their average chance quality is actually quite good – very close to what Celtic produce. But this time they will be up against a Celtic defence who when they do concede a chance, it is of the lowest average quality in the league.
- Celtic’s fluctuating results at the start of the season was largely down to their finishing rates being a lot lower than expected; they were simply not converting enough chances or even hitting the target even close to the average rate for the type of chances they had. That can happen over a short run of games, but keep up the same quantity of shots, and the goals will come. And they did in abundance for Celtic, whose finishing rates are now very close to what is expected over a larger sample of games.
- In terms of getting shots on target, Accies are bottom of the league, with only 27% of shots forcing a save or resulting in a goal – it’s a huge 14% below what is expected from the type of chances they’ve had. When they do hit the target, their scoring rate is actually very good: 3rd in the league. But that rate is 9.7% over expected, so we can expect some regression soon. Overall, Accies are likely to start getting more shots on target, but to score less from them.
Prediction: Hamilton 0, Celtic 2
(original logo illustration by Frankie Mitchell)