Heart of Midlothian v Celtic (League Cup Semi-Final)
Sunday, 28 October
Murrayfield Stadium, Edinburgh
A long-anticipated rematch is on the cards with Hearts, as Celtic make a rare trip to Edinburgh for a cup semi-final.
Despite all the difficulties the opening two months of the 2018/19 campaign has delivered, Celtic are still the League Cup holders. And if shutting Craig Levein up wasn’t enough motivation, defense of the trophy will be. League leaders Hearts will be full of confidence and looking to build on their league victory over Celtic.
Celtic have shown their best domestic form of the season in their last two matches away to St. Johnstone and home to Hibernian, scoring ten goals and showing an offensive verve that fans haven’t seen in awhile. However, the dispiriting 2-0 away Europa League defeat Thursday night in Leipzig didn’t come with many positives for the Hoops, although Brendan Rodgers’ postgame comments mentioned the resilience of this team and their ability to bounce back after European loss. And Celtic find themselves again coping with a lorryload of missing players, through injury and suspension.
Hearts have a well-earned lead in the league, and have paired that with a good League Cup campaign thus far, navigating the group stages and then logging two victories over Dunfermline and Motherwell. Having beaten Celtic twice at Tynecastle the last two seasons, Hearts will both know they can win this match, and have something to prove by beating Celtic away from home. (Although Tynecastle is right over the railroad tracks from Murrayfield so it’s not that far away from home). Hearts contend with a few key injuries of their own. They’ll find Celtic harder going than Dundee, whom they dispatched with ease 3-0 earlier this week.
- Celtic have not kept a clean sheet against Hearts in their last five meetings.
- Celtic continue to lead the table in Expected Goals For (quality of chances created) statistic; scoring 16 non-penalty goals from 9 league games, when the opportunities they have would on average suggest a goal tally of almost 20.
- Hearts are also under-performing offensively, but under-performing defensively when comparing goals to expected goals for and against. Simply put: if they keep creating and conceding the same quality of chances throughout the season, expect them to score more non-penalty goals and concede more.
Last five meetings:
The first name on Hearts’ team sheet will be forward Steven Naismith, whose exploits this season have been very Naisy indeed. He is scoring at some clip – 11 goals in 15 appearances – for the Jambos, and it’s fair to say he has revitalized himself at age 32 since coming back to Scotland from Norwich. He has also infuriated Celtic fans by quite literally kicking Scott Brown in the groin as well as halving Jonny Hayes and then having the prickishness to stand over him and shout in his face. This is the role he was born to play.
The Jambos also come into this match dealing with their share of injuries. Burly forward Uche Ikpeazu misses out, as well as first-choice defenders John Souttar and Christophe Berra. The replacement pairing of Jimmy Dunne and Clevid Dikamona have not played together much, but are better options in my opinion than Aaron Hughes who would have trouble with the pace of Celtic’s wingers.
Midfielder Peter Haring is also dealing with a hernia (ouch) but having sat out the Dundee and Aberdeen matches is a possible selection here and will make the first team if at all possible. He’ll be joined by one of the best names in Scottish football, Arnaud Djoum, as well as Oliver Bozanic, who scored in the second minute in Dundee, and Olly Lee in the midfield.
Speedy winger Demitri Mitchell is capable of giving Celtic and Mikael Lustig fits and keeping him in his own half as much as possible will also be James Forrest’s job. Rounding out the lineup should be Olly Lee in midfield, Michael Smith at right back and Steven MacLean up front – although the veteran MacLean has played a lot so far this season and is much less of a threat than Naismith. Craig Levein doesn’t have too many other options in his squad, however, and he will look to Harry Cochrane and Ben Garuccio off the bench.
Celtic have a selection crisis even more perilous than Hearts’. Dedryck Boyata will miss this match courtesy of an irresponsibly extensive colloquy with John Beaton in the quarterfinal, which earned the Belgian a red card. This will not help a defense which had just seemed to get back on its feet domestically. Jozo Simunovic picked up a head knock late on in Leipzig, and Rodgers was pessimistic about his prognosis postgame. Filip Benkovic made the bench in Germany but was likely just there to make up numbers, as Jack Hendry was the one who came on for Jozo .
All of this means that Celtic currently has one healthy centre-back eligible for Sunday’s match, and that is Hendry (ignoring the enigma wrapped in a riddle around a layer of mutual contempt that is Marvin Compper). I can’t see past Hendry starting this game alongside a less-than-fit Benkovic (who was also in training Friday), or possibly doing something really radical and slotting in Mikael Lustig or even Kieran Tierney. The blame for this mess, incidentally, lies mostly with the board and their transfer dealings, but Boyata needs to know he potentially cost his club big-time.
Scott Brown will again be missing from the midfield, and he would have been the key man up against Naismith. His absence is less of a loss from a ball-playing standpoint than it is from a leadership perspective. Celtic lacked fight and a leader on the pitch Thursday night, and someone’s going to need to step up against a swaggering Hearts tea. Olivier Ntcham was game, but very inconsistent, in Germany. Kouassi Eboue didn’t look bad in Leipzig, and he may get another game on Sunday.
Up front, Leigh Griffiths sadly won’t make the squad for a fixture he loves, leaving the striker duties to Odsonne Edouard. Hopefully Edouard will be more involved than he was Thursday night, when he was totally isolated up top with his attacking partners needing to track back on defensive duties. He’ll have more help in the forward roles, with the red-hot and rested James Forrest back in the lineup after missing out Thursday night. Tom Rogic is also dealing with a knock, and will likely be replaced in the #10 role by Callum McGregor, although he may be available off the bench.
That leaves one forward spot available. Scott Sinclair has had a fair bit of match time this season and he has shown nearly nothing for it, and has been as good as a man down in his last two appearances. Lewis Morgan and Mikey Johnston will at some point be regularly preferred to Sinclair, and I believe that point is now. Morgan looked lightweight but energetic in Leipzig and should take some measure of confidence out of the loss.
Key points to watch:
- Steven Naismith. He’s been raining in the goals for Hearts all season and is the perfect pantomime villain, having gotten away with two or three stamps and high boots on Celtic this season. I don’t envy the huge responsibility of marking him.
- Kouassi and Ntcham: This duo is going to get some playing time together over the next few weeks, and it’ll be interesting to see how this relationship develops. Both are young players with no small degree of rawness, and hopefully they have been around long enough to recognize an opportunity when it lands in their laps.
- Willie Collum, referee! You never know what you get with Collum. Will it be one of those matches where he is free with the cards, showing yellow more often than a malfunctioning traffic signal… or more likely, one where he just suggests Naismith calm down after he stomps on someone’s baws?
- Murrayfield. Celtic last played there in the 2014/15 season, running out 4-0 winners over KR Reykjavik before the famous 3-0 victory over Legia Warsaw a couple of weeks later. So it’s mixed memories to be sure. But we have been assured by the SFA (no laughing at the back) that the pitch will be identical to Hampden’s, so it should be better than playing through the field of wheat that is Tynecastle.
Tactical and statistical analysis from ModernFitba.com
The key for Celtic on Sunday must be to not let Hearts dictate the pace and nature of the game, and avoid letting them drag the match down to their level and tactics. In the game at Tynecastle in August, Celtic actually went long 9 times more than home team. Their 55 attempted passes of 40+ meters a likely combination of not trusting the playing surface and Heart’s aggressive press.
Instead, Celtic most be brave and try to break through the aggressive Hearts front line. As seen below, Craig Levein’s players will set out to be aggressive and in the faces of the Celtic players high up on pitch: in the game at Tynecastle they attempted 18 tackles in both the last third and in the middle third; almost twice as many as Celtic. If Celtic can keep a cool head and get up the field in possession of the ball, there could be a lot of space for James Forrest and Odsonne Edouard to explore. Remember that Hearts are over-performing defensively; if they keep conceding the quality of chances they have so far, they will likely start conceding more goals over a bigger sample of games (see table below)
With 10 goals in the last two league games, Celtic’s goal rate has – as predicted in other previews this season – increased rapidly; it was almost a certainly based on the quantity and quality of chances created so far.
Celtic’s finishing rates in the league are now almost identical to Hearts’, with both teams still under-performing slightly in terms of % of all shots scored and % of shots on target.
Prediction: Hearts 1, Celtic 2 (a.e.t.)