League Cup Final 2019 Preview

Overview

Ronan Kearney (@Kearney1085)

Our 7th cup final in a row rolls around this Sunday as we look to add our 10th successive domestic trophy at the expense of our Glasgow rivals. Celtic have made the Betfred Cup their own in recent years with two victories over Aberdeen and a win against Motherwell sandwiched in between. Our opponents this time around obviously adds a bit of extra spice to the mix with Steven Gerrard reaching his first cup final since taking over as boss of the Sub Human Scum XI in 2018.

The week leading up to a final can normally be fraught with nerves but both teams have had league fixtures to contend with before planning for the final. Celtic’s preparations could not be any better having been on a winning run since losing to Livingston back at the beginning of October. Injuries to Edouard, Elyounoussi and Bolingoli have disrupted proceedings slightly but while the team have coped fantastically, the sight of this trio back in training on Monday would have caused Celtic fans blood pressure to decrease slightly.

In terms of starting team, Forster will get the nod in goal and the only call in defence is at left back where Johnny Hayes will deputise for Bolingoli should the Belgian now recover in time. Jeremie Frimpong will likely get his first experience of a cup final, his first experience of Hampden and his first experience of Rangers on the same day – not bad for the young man!

All going well, the rest of the team will pick itself with Brown, McGregor, Christie, Forrest, Elyounoussi and Edouard making up the midfield and attack. If Elyounoussi does not make it, there are legitimate claims to be made for both Rogic and Ntcham – this means Christie potentially moving to a wide position that he has excelled in as expected but it does tend to blunt his impact a little. The other option is to play Mikey Johnston on the left and let him get at James Tavernier. Mikey played well there and set up Eddy’s goal in the Ibrox win in September and has looked razor sharp since returning from injury – a big call in store for Neil Lennon ahead.

These games are impossible to predict and the fact that it is a cup final makes it even more difficult to do so. Celtic’s dominance at Hampden Park recently has been clear to see and even when going a goal behind in last season’s Scottish Cup Final to Hearts, we still looked in control and ran out winners in the end. It could be very close with a tight first half before Celtic win it in the second half with Edouard and Forrest bagging a goal apiece.
Celtic to win 2-0

Celtic

Stephen Russell (@SJRussell23)

The closest match-up to this fixture is, of course, the most recent game at Ibrox. A full analysis of this can be viewed here. Cup games do exist in their own bracket, a more frenzied winner-takes-it-all environment lends itself to less predictable performances and results. A cup final against your most bitter rivals? Hardly a regular occurrence.

In the 2-0 victory at Ibrox, an early stalemate was the symptom of neither side wanting to open up too much and overextend, leaving vulnerabilities at the back. The breakthrough goal came from a clever pressing trap from Celtic targeting Goldson and forcing a mistake. This makes him likely to be targeted again. In the instance of the goal, Christie pressed high. However, with Davis identified as a threat – the deep lying playmaker capable of choosing intelligent passes to unlock a press – Christie may be asked to cover him more closely. This doesn’t stop Goldson becoming a victim of a false press. If Celtic start with high intensity and intent, Goldson may still rush his decisions when on the ball, even if Christie doesn’t press as high up the pitch – especially with his mistake at Ibrox fresh in his mind.

Elyounoussi and Edouard are rumoured to be strong contenders to start, having apparently overcome injury and fitness issues. This will be an interesting dynamic against the Rangers defence if both are selected. Edouard is no stranger to roaming from his position, specifically deep into the left half space. Elyounoussi excels at inverting his runs and cutting across the edge of the box. These fluid movements will give the Rangers defence a problem to consider: do you hold your position or break ranks and follow? If Tavernier follows Elyounoussi inside, we have Bolingoli or Hayes to overlap and capitalise, while if he doesn’t then it becomes Goldson’s problem who may be stuck trying to deal with both Elyounoussi and Edouard. Forrest staying wide on the right (if that’s how the team is selected) keeps the defence stretched and allows the pressure to be applied in this area which is one of Rangers’ weakest links.

The attacking runs from midfield can only add to this threat. Brown will likely be more focussed on winning the ball to guard against counter attacks and limit risks. Christie and McGregor (again, if this is how team selection pans out), on the other hand, will contribute massively to attacks, keeping passing angles open while the forwards probe the defence. The goalscoring threat posed by the pair makes it difficult for defenders to sit off them so, if used effectively, their attacking play will help pin Rangers back and allow a more dominant display for Celtic.

Frimpong is a likely derby debutant for the game. His defensive abilities have been questioned with the fullback only having played a handful of professional games. His pace and attacking prowess is the key to his play but in his individual battle with Kent could also be the key to preventing damage on this side of the field. Flanagan struggled in the last fixture, much preferring the right to the left. Barisic would be more interesting, but dealing with Forrest and Frimpong could very easily pin Kent too deep to be a threat.

49.7% of Celtic’s xG conceded in the league this season comes from set plays. Rangers have created 28.3% of their xG in the league this season in the same way. This highlights an issue for Celtic’s defence and an opportunity for Rangers’ attack. Playing for set plays could be a worthwhile risk for Rangers in Celtic’s defensive third but this will likely allow Celtic control of the game. Given that 28.2% of Celtic’s league xG comes from build up attacks, this may not be the best strategy to win the game as a whole.

All stats are taken from Modern Fitba. Their Patreon provides access to this and more.

Ajer’s on the ball movement will help drag Rangers players out of position to cover his options and press him which will ultimately help Celtic create chances. The defensive pairing of him and Jullien won’t give too many chances but are more likely to come from being caught forward – Rangers are 4th in the league for percentage of xG coming from turnover attacks.

Overall, Celtic should have the quality to create at least a couple of high profile chances in this game but, as with all cup games, it’s a bigger question whether they are taken. I would also expect to leak some chances. The frequency of chances for both sides massively depends on whether the managers take a cautious approach or want to take a hold on the game and be much more proactive in winning the trophy.

The Opposition

Matt Evans (@SkylandsCSC)

It seems a bit strange but this is the first time Celtic and Rangers have met in a cup final since the 2010-11 League Cup final, a fairly even contest that ended in an extra-time loss for the good guys. A lot has changed since then, although Celtic have certainly gotten the better of their bitter rivals in cup semifinal action, with only the loss in penalties in the 2015/16 Scottish Cup semi blemishing an otherwise perfect record.

This year’s iteration of Rangers is undeniably their most successful since they went bust and had to come back through the leagues. Outwith a 2-0 defeat to us they are unbeaten in Scotland this season and have matched Celtic in terms of goals scored and allowed. Some might say they have fully closed the gap; I believe that until Rangers can consistently win they are merely better than the rest of Scotland, but still below Celtic’s level.

However, they surely feel that they were merely a victim of poor tactics in the September loss at Ibrox, and in a one-off cup final I would assume they fancy their chances. Alfredo Morelos, their fuckwit of a striker, has been scoring for fun both domestically and in their Europa League group. Yet he still has not scored against Celtic, and that goes back a few years. That’s got to be in his head just a little bit and Scott Brown & co. will look to exploit that fully on Sunday. 

I remember just a couple of years ago when previewing Rangers, when right back James Tavernier was the strong point in their squad. He is now, you might argue, the weak spot. One of those fullbacks who prefers going forward to defending, he will have his hands full particularly if Celtic’s Elyounoussi is passed fit to play. However, on the diagonally opposite side of the pitch, Ryan Kent is an upgrade on the clowns who have played at his position in previous years for Rangers. It’s fair to say that if Jeremie Frimpong started for Celtic at right back that would be a very interesting matchup to watch.

The first major question mark for Rangers remains their shape and tactics, which is Steven Gerrard’s problem to solve. He is thick as mince but to his credit has put out a dogged side in Europe capable of grinding out results. A 2-2 draw won’t necessarily do here, though. The second big question is their defense. While not leaky in the traditional sense (only eight goals against in 15 league matches), they failed their toughest test on the first of September. New centre-back Filip Helander has never faced Celtic before, and is still trying to turn himself right side in after being utterly undressed at Feyenoord last week.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Celtic: Odsonne Edouard has scored five derby goals, although he has never scored in the League Cup. He and Mo Elyounoussi will be big fitness questions and their inclusion in the squad would be literal game-changers. Ryan Christie has been in fine form and will be vital box-to-box for the Hoops on Sunday. Fraser Forster will likely need to come up with one or two big saves to keep the opposition off the board.

Rangers: The aforementioned Kent and Morelos are unquestionably Rangers’ biggest weapons, and if they are on form I would expect a pretty open contest. Both teams’ offences are clicking on all cylinders of late, however, so Connor Goldson, Helander, and Allan McGregor are all going to be heavily tested.

With the game being a 3pm kick off, we thought you might like to take the time to reminisce on this. Enjoy the game and travel safely.

Let us know your predictions on Twitter @90MinuteCynic or @SJRussell23. Subscribe to our Patreon service for constant Celtic coverage and debate.


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90 Minute Cynic is a football website covering the important issues in the modern game. We follow European football with a distinct focus on the Scottish & English Premier Leagues. As part of the Hail Hail Media network, we cover Glasgow Celtic on our very popular podcast. We also seek out interesting and funny stories from all corners of the globe, bringing an analytical yet enjoyable spin on football podcasting.


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