Livingston v Celtic (SPFL Premiership)
Sunday, 11th November
Tony Macaroni Arena, Livingston
From a glorious night in Europe to an afternoon at the Tony Macaroni.
High-flying Celtic visit Livingston for the first time in eleven seasons. Is there anything in the Livi defensive arsenal that can stop an attack that has scored 23 goals in their last five domestic matches? Do they have anyone who can unlock a defense which has kept six clean sheets in the last seven? The answers to both would seem somewhere around the level of “doubtful”, and Celtic are clear favorites for the three points.
The Hoops swagger into this game coming off a 2-1 victory over RB Leipzig in the Europa League, a seriously impressive win in which Celtic showed their ability to step up yet another level. They have won seven in a row domestically and continue their hunt of Hearts, who hold on to the top of the table by their fingernails. The one X-factor for Celtic might be how much squad rotation Brendan Rodgers introduces coming off Thursday night’s effort – and how much of a squad he has to choose from.
Like most of Celtic’s opponents, Livingston will need to have a plan to sit back, foul, frustrate and stick with it, and hope the Hoops’ brilliant finishing of late from multiple players goes dark all at once. Livingston won’t take any comfort from Celtic’s recent quality performances front to back, with twin 5-0 domestic dismantlings of Dundee and Hearts most recent in the form book.
Livingston are off to a surprisingly good start in their first year back in the Premiership. For those with short memories, Livi were demoted to the old Third Division in 2009 following administration, and have been knocking around the lower leagues since then. This season, they have mainly looked the part thanks to their notably stingy defence, which has been frustrating opponents up and down Scotland. They have shipped a mere seven goals, and were a top-six side the first quarter of the season, but now sit eighth.
Celtic’s opponents come into this match coming off two 1-0 defeats, the first at home to St. Johnstone, a classic display of agricultural football that saw 32 fouls and 5 shots between the sides. Last weekend, they went down on the road to 10-man Hamilton in a more open affair, hitting the woodwork in extra time after conceding late on. Worryingly for the lower limbs of Celtic’s players, Livi manager Gary Holt has called for his team to be “more cynical” to help arrest their slippage down the table.
Stats & Facts:
- Celtic’s goal difference during the first half of league games this season is imperious 17-0. The second half is much closer: 10-6 in Celtic’s favour.
- Livingston have held their opponents to one goal or fewer in every single match after their opening day loss to Celtic.
- James Forrest and Ryan Christie have each scored in three straight domestic matches.
- Livingston have never beaten Celtic, going back to their days as Meadowbank Thistle.
- According to a BBC study, Livingston players are on average 2.5 cm shorter than Celtic players.
Last Five Meetings:
Livi prefer a 3-5-2 formation, and although they went 4-4-1-1 against Hamilton last week will likely revert back to type for the champions’ visit. Mainstays in the Livingston starting eleven have included longtime Partick Thistle midfielder Steven Lawless and defenders Alan Lithgow and Craig Halkett, the club captain. Other starters have been with Livi for a few seasons now, such as keeper Liam Kelly, midfielder (and Celtic youth product) Shaun Byrne, and defender (and Scottish Prison Service product) Declan Gallagher.
This pre-season, Livingston signed Angolan international striker and great name Dolly Menga, who had no goals in 57 appearances going back to 2015. He broke the curse with a goal here in Scotland, and it was a big one as Livi ran out 1-0 winners at home over Rangers. Menga will likely be part of a similar squad and game plan, up against a much tougher test this time. Make no mistake, the home side’s game plan will be to harry, frustrate, and foul the visitors; steal a goal – and hang on for dear life.
It must be a temptation for Brendan Rodgers to keep running out more or less the same eleven who have absolutely steamrolled every Scottish opponent the last month. Squad rotation has never seemed to be a major priority of his, and it always seems a Celtic squad with four or five new faces in it sputters to get going. So that’s the “dilemma” that Brendan will have when he sets down his tea, sharpens his pencil and mulls over his lineup card.
Tell me: is Emilio only here in case of injury to Kieran Tierney, who by the way has played the third-most minutes in Europe, including internationals? (Who is #1, you ask? None other than Callum McGregor, Scotland’s best midfielder!) Is Mikael Lustig – nearly 32 years old – a must-start against Dundee and Livingston? In some areas of the pitch, there are no real options. For instance, Odsonne Edouard will play every game for the foreseeable due to Griffiths’ long-term absence. Ironically, we now have a surplus of centre-halves!
A credible Celtic lineup that allowed for some player rest coming off a very tough European night, a rubbish plastic pitch, and an opponent whose strategy amounts to “sweep the leg” might look like this – eight changes in the eleven:
Bain; Ajer, Boyata, Hendry; Mulumbu, McGregor; Sinclair, Morgan, Forrest; Edouard.
In essence, the decision is made a little easier with a squad running a bit short due to injuries (Ntcham, who didn’t make the bench Thursday; Griffiths, Johnston, Brown, Kouassi Eboue, Gamboa, Simunovic, Compper) and players clearly out of favour (Allan, Ralston, Compper). All that being said, with the international break coming, it’s more than likely Rodgers will go with the lineup that has been causing it in Scotland of late.
- The Plastic Way vs the Celtic Way: With the surface at Tony Macaroni (I mean, come on) Arena said to rate somewhere between the merely lousy turf at Hamilton and the truly dreadful Killie pitch, these nasty blights on the game have bedeviled Celtic’s quick-passing game in the past. Will this enormous ocean of pellets be Livi’s rubbery 12th man?
- Set-Piece Clashes: Celtic scored off a corner for what felt like the first time in ages at the weekend. As noted in Stats & Facts, the Hoops will have a bit of a height advantage, especially if Kristoffer Ajer features. With recent improved deliveries from all-round sensation Callum McGregor, and proven scoring potential from Boyata and Benkovic, Celtic can really add to what is an already diverse attack. Livingston did score all their four goals in the win against Dundee from set-pieces, so they do know how to organise themselves offensively at least.
- Kevin Clancy vs Refereeing of Average Quality: While not one of the worst whistlers in Scotland, Clancy has previous for giving bad penalties (last year’s League Cup semi with Hibs), for which Brendan Rodgers called him out.
- Tired Legs vs Willing Minds: It’s rare to see European nights truly fatigue Celtic players, but although there was no travel involved, Leipzig came heavy, and the 2-1 win was a real battle in the pouring rain. Will any of that carry over?
Prediction: Livingston 0, Celtic 3
(original logo illustration by Frankie Mitchell)