It’s back up to Edinburgh for Celtic, who look to cap off a wild week by punching their ticket to another Hampden semi-final.
To say that it’s been an emotional rollercoaster for Hoops fans (and indeed the players and remaining backroom staff) would be a massive understatement. We were all holding our breath well into the 90 at Tynecastle on Wednesday night, and many of us only exhaled when Odsonne Edouard’s stoppage-time volley found the back of the net, causing scenes in the away end and in sitting rooms and pubs across the world that hadn’t been seen since… well, a fortnight ago at Rugby Park.
The relief and joy from Neil Lennon, his consiglieri Kennedy and Duff, and the players was a real balm for an angry and wounded Celtic support, and served to cement the resolve and unity to finish the job that some didn’t care to finish. Given other results around the league, it would have been open season in the media if the teams split the points at Tynecastle. In the end, the good guys won, and graphic designers at papers all over Glasgow clicked the X on their .jpg files of cracked crests. And now it’s time to step up again to defend another trophy.
Hibs, for their part, have fair turned it around after a post-Christmas dip in form that saw them drop as low as eighth in the table. Their road to this Scottish Cup quarterfinal, meanwhile, has featured two easy home wins over Elgin City (4-0) and Raith Rovers (3-1). New manager Paul Heckingbottom has essentially the same squad playing much better, although their three league wins in a row have come against bottom-six opposition.
Their home form against Celtic has been superb of late – winning the last two in convincing fashion and scoring two late goals to grab a point in another. So they’ll have a lot of belief, and will also have the added inducement of getting one over on their former manager, who departed the club in mysterious yet rancorous circumstances.
Last Six Meetings:
|Dec’ 18||Hibernian – Celtic 2-0|
|Oct’ 18||Celtic – Hibernian 4-2|
|Apr’ 18||Hibernian – Celtic 2-1|
|Jan’ 18||Celtic – Hibernian 1-0|
|Oct’ 17||Hibernian – Celtic 2-4|
|Sep’ 17||Celtic – Hibernian 2-2|
Stats & Facts:
- Celtic have not won at Easter Road since January 2014.
- Red-hot Hibs forward Marc McNulty has five goals in his last three matches (although two have been penalties).
- Celtic have won twelve Scottish Cup matches in a row, with clean sheets in their last five.
- Although he likely won’t start this one, Mikael Lustig has scored 4 of his 18 career goals in Scotland against Hibs.
Hibs have been 4-4-2 all the way since Heckingbottom took over, and although they haven’t played anyone truly dangerous, they have had success with a consistent lineup and formation. Ryan Gauld will miss out on this one, but he wasn’t very effective when he played at Celtic Park last month anyway. As mentioned in Stats & Facts above, Marc McNulty, on loan from Reading, has been doing the heavy lifting of late in terms of scoring for Hibs. He’s had a brace in each of his last two games, and strike partner Florian Kamberi has two goals in his last three.
Compounding Hibs’ attacking threat are pacy wingers Daryl Horgan and Stevie Mallan. The latter is the one that will potentially cause more trouble; he has six goals to go along with seven assists this season. Centre-mids Mark Milligan and Vykintas Slivka are a bit more defensive-minded; Slivka was sent off in the match against St Johnstone in midweek but since it was two yellows and not a straight red, he’ll play in this one but miss out in Hibs’ next league match.
At the back it’s the usual suspects bar Darnell Johnson, who was suspended for two matches after his borderline assault on Emilio Izaguirre when last the two sides met at Celtic Park. Kieran Tierney is not going to take any of that shit, and I think Hibs are a better side with David Gray in it anyway. I suspect Heckingbottom agrees with me. Gray will be partnered by left-back Lewis Stevenson and in the centre of defence with mainstays Darren McGregor and Paul Hanlon, with Ofir Marciano in goals.
It was a relief indeed when few changes were made to the Celtic squad who played up at Tynecastle. Injuries to two key midfielders forced John Kennedy’s hand a wee bit. The result aside, though, you can’t say that they played particularly well, especially against ten men. A calmer, more expansive performance is going to be needed if Celtic don’t want to rely on last-minute heroics again.
Despite a bit of passing vapor lock that led to Kristoffer Ajer giving away a penalty to Hearts, Scott Bain is likely going to be the first-choice keeper for the rest of the season. Readers of tea leaves will have noticed Craig Gordon’s muted celebration to the events of Wednesday night, but Bain has earned his place on merit, pulling off a brilliant fingertip save to deny Hearts an early opener that would have changed that match mightily.
Ajer, for his part, can be forgiven; not only was it a debatable call, not only is he still learning the position, but it was a loose pass that led to the penalty in the first place. He’ll be partnered with Dedryck Boyata at the centre of defence, with Kieran Tierney and Jeremy Toljan in the fullback positions. Toljan had a much better showing in a physical battle at Tynecastle than I expected he would, playing some very good defense and showing his pace and flair in attack. This fixture will be less physical but he will have responsibility for shutting down Hibs’ pacy attacking mids.
Regardless of whether you want to get technical about exactly what formation Celtic are playing these days (is majestic moose Oliver Burke a striker? Is he no? 4-3-3? 4-2-3-1? Whatever!), the personnel largely pick themselves. Callum McGregor’s and Ryan Christie’s injuries will see them out for a few weeks – they will likely be targeting the 31 March derby for their returns. In the meantime, Ewan Henderson has filled in superbly. The young Celt’s pass to spring Scott Sinclair on the counterattack led to the first goal on Wednesday night, and he duly piled in with the other three men in the move to celebrate. As KT said himself, “wee Hendo’s class, man” and I couldn’t agree more. He’ll play in Ryan Christie’s box-to-box role. Nir Bitton and Scott Brown in more central and defensive positions. Broony was his usual self in midweek, nearly giving the ball away before playing a gorgeous ball in for Edouard to get on the end of for the winner.
Up front is really where the only decision needs to be made. When I saw the lineup Wednesday evening, I was surprised that Edouard was left on the bench with Burke preferred in the position. But Burke’s pace caused Hearts no end of problems, and it’s going to be a tough choice for the management team whether or not to leave the club’s biggest signing out of the first eleven yet again. Edouard has three goals in his last two matches and isn’t here to be a super-sub. In the end, I think Burke gets a rest here and him and Timothy Weah will be real assets coming off the bench if needed in the last half-hour.
Look out for…
- Goals From Midfield: It’ll be interesting to find out if Henderson and Bitton can chip in with the goals like McGregor and Christie are used to doing. The loss of those two for a month at least, added to the ongoing absence of Olivier Ntcham and Tom Rogic, puts more pressure on the striker and attacking wingers. They have all acquitted themselves well so far, but there will be more of a balance when the first-choice midfielders come back.
- Warm Welcome: I suspect that Hibs didn’t expect to see Neil Lennon back so soon, and it’ll be interesting to see if they’re especially gee’d up to take him on. That works both ways, however, as the squad is essentially the same as the one he was managing not very long ago, and he’ll surely have the inside scoop on their tendencies.
- Willie: You know refereeing is in a shite state where “Willie Collum is the referee” doesn’t fill you with abject fear. Collum is, at the end of the day, as lousy as the rest of them, but unlike the likes of Andrew Dallas, he is at least halfway competent at his job. The thing that has always bothered me about wee Willie is his imperious belief that the match is somehow about him, and an average of four bookings per game doesn’t do much to rubbish that notion.
Hibs 1, Celtic 3