Let’s just go and win one for King Billy McNeill.
It’s been an emotional and nostalgia-filled week around Parkhead after the passing of one of the singular icons of the Celtic Football Club. There would be no more fitting way to honour the big man than to take three points on Saturday, with one of those classic Celtic performances in front of a packed house. The Hoops need just four points to put the league mathematically out of reach, so a win Saturday against visiting Kilmarnock would virtually secure the title. But it’s been heavy going of late, and there are no guarantees.
Quite frankly, Celtic could use some of McNeill’s managerial nous at the moment, for no one can say they’re romping their way to eight in a row. The last two league matches, 0-0 draws home to Livi and away at Hibs, have been devoid of cutting edge, with only solid defending and goalkeeping saving Celtic’s blushes. Even the wins come with asterisks: three last-minute winners and a Scottish Cup semifinal against a nine-man Aberdeen who made themselves easy to beat. If three points don’t come here, it’ll all go in the pressure cooker and the league very well might go to the final day.
Kilmarnock, for their part, could be coming into this fixture in better shape. Last week’s 1-0 loss to Aberdeen at Rugby Park saw three Killie players sent off, including both centre-halves. In addition, Youssouf Mulumbu has played their last four matches in a row but is ineligible for this one. So although Steve Clarke has done relatively well against Celtic, he’ll be in arrears on Saturday from a selection perspective, as well as perhaps a motivational one. However, Kilmarnock are still in a fight with Aberdeen for the final guaranteed place in European play next season. They’ll certainly be disciplined and defend in depth, whichever eleven go out for Killie.
Stats & Facts
- Killie have lost four of their last ten, averaging less than a goal per match in that stretch
- Celtic have failed to score more than two goals in a league fixture for two months.
- Kilmarnock have only lost three road matches this season, but have had a difficult time scoring away from Rugby Park (17 goals in 17)
- Despite the tepid performances at home recently, Celtic remain unbeaten at Parkhead this season against domestic teams.
Last Five Meetings
|Feb’19||Kilmarnock – Celtic 0-1||Premiership|
|Dec’18||Celtic – Kilmarnock 5-1||Premiership|
|Sep’18||Kilmarnock – Celtic 2-1||Premiership|
|May’18||Celtic – Kilmarnock 0-0||Premiership|
|Feb’18||Kilmarnock – Celtic 1-0||Premiership|
As noted, Kilmarnock have three starters out for this fixture, but they can still offer up a decent squad for Saturday, with some players in the lineup that can trouble Celtic. I would expect Clarke & co. to come to Celtic Park and sit in, but forwards Rory McKenzie and Eamonn Brophy are capable on their day. McKenzie, who was one of the three sent off last weekend, had his red card reduced to yellow and will be available Saturday. Right mid Chris Burke is a set-piece delivery threat. Aaron Tshibola will deputise in the midfield for his Congolese colleague Mulumbu, alongside Gary Dicker and Alan Power.
At the back, goalkeeper Daniel Bachmann has sometimes been difficult to beat for Celtic, but the Killie defense will be without their top two centre-backs (Kirk Broadfoot and Stuart Findlay) due to their red cards from last weekend. Alex Bruce (last seen deflecting goalward a last-minute Scott Brown shot that was otherwise headed into row Z) and Scott Boyd will have their work cut out for them. Boyd has only played 45 minutes in two months, but he’s the only centre-back left in the Killie squad. Greg Taylor and Stephen O’Donnell are reasonably talented left and right backs, respectively.
Celtic are back in the bad injury books, with Kieran Tierney and Ryan Christie likely done for the season. KT’s health has been (in my opinion) awfully handled recently. He may or may not have been injured regardless of the number of games he’s played, but that kind of mileage on a still-developing player is worrisome. Let’s all hope he will have the treatment he needs – surgical or otherwise – and he’ll be as good as new for the qualifiers in July. Christie, for his part, sustained severe head wounds from the “just a yellow” forearm to the face he received in the semifinal.
In Tierney’s absence, Neil Lennon needs to stop messing about with the left side, replace like for like and start Jonny Hayes at left back. Emilio Izaguirre was never the answer earlier this season when you-know-who was in charge, and Lennon must have loved the idea of starting glory-days Emilio. But those days are gone. At right back, I always worry about Mikael Lustig dealing with the pace on Killie’s left wing but the super Swede has proven me wrong time and again.
If you could vote for a defensive unit as Player of the Year, you’d have to think Scott Bain, Kristoffer Ajer and whoever the other centre-back has been would make great candidates. Seven clean sheets in the last eight matches don’t lie. Jozo Simunovic has been very good in the last four matches since Dedryck Boyata was lost to injury, and the more he and Ajer play together and develop a partnership, the better off Celtic will be going into next season.
The midfield probably doesn’t bring up too many questions, but perhaps it should. Lennon will never leave a healthy Scott Brown out of the starting eleven, and the longtime captain would not (and should not) miss out on a match that will be a tribute to Celtic’s most famous captain. However, there’s a good argument to be made that the Hoops’ football is more expressive and attack-minded with Callum McGregor in Brown’s deep-lying role. It’s a moot point this weekend, though, especially with Christie’s injury.
I felt that Tom Rogic was starting to show some flashes of his old form in his substitute appearance at the weekend, and he’s certainly a better starting option than Olivier Ntcham, who has serious consistency issues and simply may not be long for Celtic. Another man in that latter category might be Scott Sinclair, who hasn’t been good as a starter or a substitute since his brief purple patch this winter. Timothy Weah is a much better option for a squad that is in desperate need of youthful energy.
James Forrest, possibly Celtic’s biggest goal threat, must start. Up front, Odsonne Edouard is still working on consistency, but I resolutely maintain he needs to start more or less every match for the time being. These two have scored over one-third of Celtic’s league goals this season, which says a lot about them individually. They’re big-game players who have overcome challenges – Eddy dealt with injury earlier in the season and is still a young player, and everyone had all but given up on Forrest three seasons ago. Despite their success, it’s dangerous to rely so much on so few.
Look Out For….
- Attacking defenders: A very effective tactic in the semifinal – marauding runs out from the back by Ajer and Jozo – was missing against Hibs. While true that it was more effective against Aberdeen’s man-marking, it’s still a worthwhile idea to try and pull a packed defense apart and give Celtic a numbers advantage in attacking areas.
- Killie’s intent: Although traditional wisdom dictates Steve Clarke will take Kilmarnock to Celtic Park to sit in, they are still within catching distance of Aberdeen, who don’t play until Sunday. Could they have a go, try and nick a win with their pacy forwards, and put some pressure on Aberdeen? Doubtful, but there’s no difference between a 5-0 and 1-0 loss for them.
- Where are the goals? Outwith Edouard and Forrest, when it comes to goals, it’s all been drier than a dead dingo’s donger (that’s one for the Aussie bhoys). Christie is a huge miss when it comes to goals, and McGregor’s offensive contributions have slowed (no goals, one assist in his last seven). And the less said about Celtic’s set pieces, the better.
- Referee watch: Willie Collum, beloved by one and all. Collum is fresh off taking charge of the Valencia-Villareal tie in the Europa League quarterfinals.
Celtic 2, Kilmarnock 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.