Hibernian vs Celtic
Sunday, 16th December
Easter Road, Edinburgh
Unbeaten in the last twelve domestic games, top-of-the-league Celtic travel to Leith to meet a Hibs squad in real need of a boost.
After a 5-1 thrashing of pretenders to the throne Kilmarnock, the Hoops are at the halfway point of a dreadfully busy December. Five matches: three tricky, two simple on paper, separate them from the New Year. Easter Road is never an easy place to play; Celtic lost there late last season. The effort Thursday night against Salzburg (including two major injuries), plus Hibs’ precarious position in the table, might make for some tough going Sunday.
Celtic can breathe a sigh of relief. Their 2-1 loss to Salzburg on the last night of the Europa League group stages wasn’t the prettiest match you’ll ever see them play, but thanks to the combined efforts of Rosenborg’s Birger Meling (cross) and Tore Reginiussen (heider, goal), the Glasgow giants are through to the round of 32. Now it’s a matter of maintaining their domestic form and cementing their lead at the top of the table.
Hibs got off to a decent start in the league and even successfully navigated two Europa League qualifiers, but the bottom has fallen out since they came to Celtic Park and were beaten 4-2 despite putting up a good fight. Since then, they have one win in their last eight (three draws in that span sparing their blushes). With Celtic, a home-and-away with Rangers, and the derby tie with Hearts at home, Hibs are in for an even worse festive period than Celtic are.
Stats & Facts:
Celtic have won only once in their last five at Easter Road, drawing two and losing two
Hibs’ leading scorers are Kamberi, Shaw and Mallan, all tied with four.
Despite sitting eighth in the league, Hibs are the Premiership’s third-highest scoring team, and are fourth in both goals and shots on target. So one would expect an open match, similar to the game at Parkhead in October.
- 20th Oct 2018 (SPFL) Celtic – Hibernian 4-2.
- 21st April 2018 (SPFL): Hibernian – Celtic 2-1.
- 27th Jan 2018 (SPFL): Celtic – Hibernian 1-0.
- 10th Dec 2017 (SPFL): Hibernian – Celtic 2-2.
- 21st Oct 2017 (League Cup): Hibernian – Celtic 2-4.
Neil Lennon is going to have a bit of a tough time with his team sheet, as he is dealing with a raft of injuries. His first issue will be at right back. Team captain David Gray has been dealing with injuries all year and will not be fit for Sunday, but neither will his replacement, Charalampos Mavrias. Mark Milligan, who started in the right back position at Celtic Park, is a major doubt. Surely three at the back will not work for Lennon or Hibs, but something is going to have to give.
Let’s go ahead and assume Hibs are forced into playing 3-5-2 and having a go (which might not be a bad strategy to spark a moribund side as well as catch a tired Celtic a bit off-guard). Striker Oli Shaw scored last week against Hamilton, a feat which apparently earned him the right to run his mouth in the press about Celtic, and would start up front paired with Florian Kamberi.
In the midfield, Lenny has more to choose from, although the danger man Martin Boyle picked up a concussion last weekend and may not be able to make this match. Slivka, Mallan, Hyndman, and Horgan are all likely starting candidates. The back three would be Stevenson, Porteous (or Darren McGregor) and Efe Ambrose, whom I suppose could also be deputized to play right back if the formation changed to 4-4-2.
Finally, Adam Bogdan may have lost his starting place to Ofir Marciano, who kept Hibs’ first clean sheet in five at the weekend vs Hamilton. Bogdan was injured in the warmup to that match, which might have kept him out of this one regardless.
Celtic’s lineup issues will also be an interesting talking point leading up to Saturday. Mikael Lustig took a bad head knock and had to come out of Thursday night’s match, and Ryan Christie suffered a bad-looking lower leg injury that may see him out for the long haul, which is truly a shame.
Let’s go back to front. Craig Gordon’s pros and cons were on full display Thursday night, with an excellent display of shot-stopping keeping Celtic in the match, then some absolute comedy “distribution” seemingly slamming the door on the Hoops’ hopes before Gordon and Celtic were rescued from the fire by Rosenborg. A lot of folks would say “Right, get Bain in” but that’s not Rodgers’ way. Gordon will be back between the sticks at Easter Road to try and move on from his Thursday night exploits.
Mikael Lustig will be questionable for this one. He passed the concussion test in the moment on Thursday night, but only played on five or ten minutes before he was subbed off. In a short interview with the famous Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet on Friday morning, he reported a lingering headache, a clear sign of concussion. I felt it was extremely risky at the time of his injury for Lustig to continue, and this match is not big enough that you can’t rest him. Cristian Gamboa will get another chance to show that he deserves to stay around, but you feel as if he’s got one foot out the door already. KT will partner him on the left wing, and I can’t see past the Balkan Bash Brothers at centre-half.
With Ryan Christie out for awhile it’s Scott Brown time again. McGregor may shift to Christie’s more box-to-box role while Brown plays a holding midfield. It is imperative that Brown move the play forward out of defense; if he plays a defensive role sat right in front of the centre-halves, there’s not much utility to his game and that’s definitely a situation that slows down the play. Broony is a canny boy, though, and that old dog still has a trick or two up his short sleeve.
Further forward, the question of whether or not to continue running Scott Sinclair out there still has not been adequately answered. Long described as a “confidence player” I’m not sure how much confidence he has left after a series performances that have swung wildly from competent to catastrophic, culminating in his being pulled at halftime Thursday night. “A tactical replacement”, aye right. Lewis Morgan should be given the start in his place, with James Forrest on the right wing.
Tom Rogic is another Celtic player who’s been a bit off the boil of late and was virtually anonymous against Salzburg. I do prefer him to start, although Olivier Ntcham has to think he might be able to displace Rogic if the Frenchman’s performances can improve after his late goal Thursday night. I don’t think it will be this weekend, though. With home games against bottom-six Motherwell and Dundee coming up there will be more squad rotation then.
Finally, with Leigh Griffiths a long-term absentee (and I wish him the absolute best, and hope he comes back soon happy and healthy), Odsonne Edouard will continue to lead the line for Celtic. Edouard has been by turns sublime and frustrating this season, which is normal for a young player. He will need a breather at some point, though, which likely means James Forrest deputized as the emergency man up top.
Key Points to watch:
• Keeping the balance right. When Celtic are in full flow, either Tierney and Sinclair are ruling the left, or Lustig/McGregor and Forrest are running the right. This match may see a Tierney/Morgan and Gamboa/Forrest partnership. I’m most interested in the former; there is a player in Morgan and he’s the most likely to do a McGregor or a Christie and take a big step forward
• Hibs’ bottle. It’s a rough December for Celtic mostly because of the two extra European matches, in addition to seven league games. But Celtic have it easier than Hibs the rest of the way, and the Edinburgh club would have wanted an easier opponent to try and win their first two in a row since October 6.
• Lennon’s reserves. With a squad struggling with injuries, could Hibernian look to the kids for some respite?
• Referee watch! Jeezo these guys are awful. This week’s whistler is Don Robertson, who Neil Lennon loathes; Celtic last saw him in their 3-0 defeat of Hamilton, a match relatively free of officiating shenanigans.
Prediction: Hibernian 1, Celtic 2