Celtic travel to Edinburgh, and should expect the toughest challenge yet to their unbeaten 2019. Not long in the memory is a much longer, more famous invincible streak coming to an end in Gorgie. This year’s Celtic squad may have a more modest seven wins from seven league matches, but have shown a resilience in the last two matches that will serve them well. Tynecastle is a thoroughly unpleasant place for the visitors, but a focused, disciplined performance will go a long way towards securing eight wins (and titles) in a row.
Unfortunately, focus and discipline may be in short supply after the surprise departure of the ex-manager and his lieutenants on the coaching staff. At the time of writing, it appears that One Neil Lennon is expected to be in charge on Wednesday night and continue on until the end of the season. At this point, though, that eighth league trophy is going to be in the main the responsibility of the players. Whatever happens in the summer window, failure this season is not an option and it will have to be guys like Kieran Tierney and Scott Brown who can pick us all up off the mat and lead by example.
One factor working in Celtic’s favor is that they’re catching Hearts in lean times. With only 11 goals in their last 10 matches, the Edinburgh side owe their fifth spot in the table as much to the even worse fortunes of St. Johnstone and Livingston as they do to their own performances. They’ve drawn the last two at home to bottom-six opposition, and have been a streaky team all season. But they will be wanting to exact some revenge after a 5-0 humping at Celtic Park and a 3-0 exit from the League Cup at home to the champions.
Stats & Facts:
- Hearts have not scored more than 2 goals in a match since late October
- Neil Lennon, in his stint at Hibs, had a record of W3 D3 L3 against Hearts, and never won at Tynecastle
- Hearts have lost 19(!!) of the last 23 against Celtic, but their two wins in that stretch have come in the last two seasons.
The last two times Hearts and Celtic clashed, the Jambos had to do without their talisman and All-World wee wank Steven Naismith. He was stretchered off early in their 3-0 League Cup loss and missed out on the comprehensive doing Hearts received at Celtic Park. Also missing from both of those fixtures was centre-back Christophe Berra. Both will be in the lineup Wednesday night, and it could be argued that their absence was a big reason Hearts were basically non-competitive in the last two fixtures between the sides.
Craig Levein, another wank, has been playing three-at-the-back in the last five matches after generally setting up 4-4-2 for most of the season. Berra will be partnered with John Souttar and noted grass Clevid Dikamona in defence; we all know Souttar, but Dikamona is capable as well. He marshalled Odsonne Edouard well in the League Cup defeat but was unable to stop him scoring a brace in the 5-0 loss. Rounding out the back will be Zdenek Zlamal in nets; Colin Doyle’s last-minute clanger in the loss to Motherwell should see him glued to the bench for the foreseeable.
Hearts have a very capable midfield, whether it’s four or five – the latter may be more likely as flooding the midfield has often paid dividends for Celtic’s opponents. Arnaud Djoum, a name you love to touch (but you mustn’t touch), will be the anchor for a complement of players that should include second-top scorer Olly Lee as well as the Austrian Peter Haring. Pacy wingers Demitri Mitchell and Michael Smith will both miss out on this one due to injury, a relief for Celtic’s fullbacks. Their understudies, Jake Mulraney on the left and Sean Clare on the right, don’t inspire nearly as much confidence, but Clare is a bit of a player and has been featuring more in Hearts’ lineups lately.
Up front will be Naismith, of whom so much is known and loathed already, as well as Uche Ikpeazu. This will be his fourth match back after foot surgery, and despite Hearts not winning any of the previous three, Ikpeazu is indeed someone that can cause Celtic’s defense trouble when paired with the irritating stylings of Naismith.
One thing that cannot happen for Celtic is a wholesale change in tactics and formation. The squad know how to play the system. If another manager wants to change that up in the close season, then fine, but now is definitely not the time, especially when Celtic have been flying, with 15 goals in their last six league fixtures. And that all starts with Scott Bain. Although his shutout streak came to a sad and strange end after Motherwell’s underhanded tactics for their goal at the weekend, he is settled in the position and any shift back to Craig Gordon would be a very unwelcome harbinger of change in the squad.
Three-fourths of the back four pick themselves in Kieran Tierney, Dedryck Boyata and Kristoffer Ajer. Boyata and Ajer in particular are forming a very good centre-back pairing of late, and their strength and positioning intelligence, respectively, will be key to shutting down the Mutt-and-Jeff partnership of Hearts’ two forwards. There is a bit of an open question to me at right-back. On paper of course you would prefer Jeremy Toljan, but you wonder if the intangibles of playing at Tynecastle might be beyond him. Mikael Lustig is used to the abuse that opposing right-backs receive from the Wheatfield Stand, but that’s about the only reason he would be preferred.
Scott Brown, as always, will need to balance dig with intelligence – Hearts will come ready to scrap and the officials will make it easy for them to do so. Of course the captain will need to be careful of the early soft booking, but he’s been through these fixtures umpteen times by now. His midfield partner is still up in the air; lost in Tuesday’s hue and cry was the news that Callum McGregor may miss up to 6 weeks with a calf injury. Ewan Henderson filled in brilliantly, but this would be a big spot for such a young player. Nir Bitton alongside Broony is usually rubbished for some variation of “slows down the game” but that partnership might appeal to Neil Lennon. It’s also not totally out of the question that Scott Allan might be tried out.
Further forward, another injury concern is Ryan Christie, who was subbed off against Motherwell with a hamstring injury that will see him sidelined for at least a few weeks. I’ve been agitating for majestic moose Oliver Burke in the 10 role for a few matches now and Christie’s absence (and the fact that Tom Rogic is still weeks away himself) will probably force the manager’s hand on that one. Scott Sinclair and James Forrest to the left and right and Odsonne Edouard, who showed his versatility against Motherwell, round out the starting eleven.
(Note that the only thing missing from this lineup is someone capable of taking set pieces – French Eddy is deadly from around the box but he’s no corner-taker.)
Key points to watch:
- How will Celtic – as a playing eleven and as a club – respond to the unexpected change in management? Will there be a weird Twilight Zone sort of new-manager bounce to look forward to for ex-and-new-manager Neil Lennon? (By the way, have any of you ever gotten back with one of your exes? How’d that work out?) As if Tynecastle weren’t already a difficult test of mettle.
- Hearts will see a visit from the champions as a rocket up the arse to try and reverse their recent dip in form. But they have to play it the right way and realise that Celtic are still very, very dangerous if they fancy it. Craig Levein will need to strike the right tactical balance between sitting in and kicking Celtic, and going for it and kicking Celtic.
- Referee watch: Step right up, Steven McLean, who will have been practicing all week the dark arts of the role – free kicks given the wrong way, free rein to assault Kieran Tierney, a soft penalty to the home side, and the newest craze, bookings for head knocks (a/k/a the Clancy Special).
Prediction: Hearts 1, Celtic 2
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.