All tickets, please… the next stop on this line is eight in a row.
Celtic are closing in on the league title and look to go into the split with their 15th win from 16 games this calendar year. It’s not been the easiest of times, but after another ground-out result in Paisley on Wednesday night, it’s clear that this team can win when not at their best. Some positive news around individual players’ fitness helps immeasurably as Celtic play their last fixture before a massive Scottish Cup semifinal against Aberdeen.
It seems as if Neil Lennon has been around forever, but the 2-0 win at St Mirren was just his sixth game back in charge of the Hoops. Quite frankly, the jury’s still out. You can’t argue with 16 points from a possible 18 and a derby victory, but you also can’t argue with the fact that Celtic have relied on a lot of luck – three last-minute winners in six – to get there. Jammy as fuck.
Football, like most sports, is a game of inches. If Odsonne Edouard isn’t as clinical a striker – or if, say, Oliver Burke was taking those last-minute chances – the situation might be a whole lot different. Alternatively, if Ntcham scores the penalty, Wednesday night would have been a lot more comfortable watch. All that is to say, it would be nice to see a good old-fashioned 4-0 tonking. We know Celtic are more than capable.
After a hot start to the season, Livingston have settled back into lower-mid-table mediocrity. Their 2-0 defeat of Hamilton at midweek secured their place in the Premiership next season, but they remain a very strange team in some ways. Livi boast the third-best home form in the league (W10 L5 D2) but their away form is truly dreadful.
They are very defensively sound, tied for fourth-fewest goals against in the league, and rely on grit, organization and a really lousy artificial pitch. The 0-0 draw against essentially Celtic’s best eleven in November exemplifies their approach, but doing it at Celtic Park is going to be a big ask.
Stats & Facts Corner
- Livingston have scored a mere eight goals in 15 away matches this season.
- Celtic have scored more than two goals only once in their last nine.
- Livingston have never beaten Celtic, and the 0-0 in November was their first point ever against the Hoops
- Only three of Livingston’s 35 goals this season have been scored by non-Scottish players, by far the fewest in the league.
|Sep’08||Celtic-Livingston 4-0||League Cup|
It occurred to me when going over the Livingston squad that it’s not good for your second-top scorer to be a centre-back. It’s even worse when said centre-back, captain Craig Halkett, is off to Hearts next season. His defensive partner Alan Lithgow tormented Celtic in the November match with old-school long throw-ins. Midfielder Keaghan Jacobs is Livi’s answer to Scott Brown, i.e. a tireless tackler, and is a big part of keeping his team’s defensive record what it is.
A 5-4-1 setup might be on the cards for the visitors, who won’t be able to rely on a primary school-grade artificial turf to stop Celtic. Rangers loanee Ryan Hardie has scored in two straight and would look likely to start this one, but putting him up on his own, even with the moderately talented Craig Sibbald on the wing, might be a bit much to ask.
Keeper Liam Kelly, just recently called up to the Scotland squad, is one of the better goalies in the league and frustrated the hell out of Ryan Christie and Tom Rogic the last time around. He’s played every one of Livingston’s league matches this season.
I’d like to think that with Ryan “RC Cool” Christie back in full flow, the lineup for the cup semifinal is pretty much sorted out. (Bain; the healthiest left back, Ajer, Benkovic, Lustig; Brown, McGregor; Sinclair/Burke, Christie, Forrest; Edouard.)
But there is still time for someone to prove themselves. For instance, it would be wise to rest James Forrest for this one and spare him the agricultural stylings of the Livingston defense. So perhaps Michael Johnston gets a chance, and/or Timothy Weah, who was impressive in bursts on Wednesday and might benefit from a couple of games in a row. Jozo Simunovic looked decent against St Mirren in his first start in almost two months, and Neil Lennon might want to give him another run out over Benkovic, who is off to Rat Island anyway.
Mikael Lustig is another Celt I’d expect to start at Hampden but get rested in this one. Anthony Ralston played all 90 minutes of the last reserves match, so maybe he’s in with a shout? Cristian Gamboa has fallen into the Springfield Mystery Spot, and the shine is well and truly off Jeremy Toljan by now. After a bit of a bright start he has really fallen out of favour, only coming on when Lustig is too crocked to continue. The podcast wing of the 90 Minute Cynic will need to get “Where’s ma right back?” out of storage sooner rather than later.
It was interesting to see three centre-backs come out of Lennon’s bag of tricks on Wednesday night. Potentially an effective tactic to try and unlock these packed defenses is changing the way the ball moves into the offensive half. Opponents always give Celtic’s centre-backs a lot of time on the ball, and Kristoffer Ajer especially has been able to exploit this, moving forward with the grace of a Cadillac and often continuing into advanced positions. At worst, having the three CBs allowed Emilio Izaguirre to play further forward, which I thought improved his performance.
Look Out For…
- Look who’s back: Ryan Christie came back from injury as a sub at St Mirren, picked right up where he left off, and completely changed the game. Will Olivier Ntcham or Tom Rogic get any time in this match to try and get fit before the semifinals? Either of them are going to have to show a lot to displace the McGregor-Brown-Christie midfield three.
- Which Livingston shows up? Safe from relegation and with little to actually play for, with their captain off in the summer, and with a hideously bad away record you might think it wouldn’t be a very motivated Livi side coming to Celtic Park.
- Which Celtic shows up? Recent performances have been encouraging at the beginning of matches, but Celtic grab a 1-0 and have trouble adding onto it. Which makes every long ball bouncing in front of the defender, or any derring-do play from the back, an opportunity for disaster to strike. Before coming up against capable Aberdeen, it would be great to see the Celtic attack back in full flow.
- Referee watch: Euan Anderson, who hasn’t been refereeing in the Premiership very long. We hope that the incompetence of his colleagues isn’t contagious.
Celtic 4, Livingston 0
The original match poster and the two club posters are 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.