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On 25 May 1967, Celtic achieved the greatest result in their history. 52 years to the day later, they can put their names to arguably the second-greatest: three domestic trebles in a row.
Think about this season. Think about losing 2-1 at Rugby Park in September. Think about going out of the Champions League qualifiers, think about all the injuries, think about that rat manager who fucked off for Leicester. Think about Neil Lennon coming back to Celtic to help scrape, scratch and shove the team over the line to eight in a row and the brink of history. Think about all the drama gone by, and all the new-manager drama currently being breathlessly bandied about.
And then forget it, all of it. This is one game, and as all Cup finals are, it is massive. Victory would wrap up the treble with a big fat bow; Celtic having won everything Scottish football has to offer them three years running. What’s even left, you wonder? Would four trebles in a row be more earthshaking of an accomplishment than three? The only milestone left for this venerable and beloved institution is of course ten in a row. Win or lose in this one, however, it’s the end of a certain cycle at the club, with a lot of change coming this summer. But all that intrigue takes a backseat until Sunday morning.
Hearts, on the other hand, seem to have pulled the ripcord on their season a little early this time round, with only a draw to show for themselves after the league split in mid-April. They ended their 2018/19 in a moribund sixth after a shit-hot start to the campaign, and wound up eight goals underwater in terms of goal difference, averaging just over one goal scored per match. Craig Levein’s side may struggle to contain Celtic on the expansive Hampden pitch. If they cannot, all they can do is hang on and, as Levein referred to in his press conference, rely on luck.
Stats & Facts Corner
- Hearts have not won since March 30 and have only picked up a single point since then .
- Celtic have not allowed a goal in seven straight Scottish Cup ties, and have scored 2 goals or more in 14 straight
- Hearts haven’t been in a cup final since losing the Scottish League Cup to St. Mirren in 2012/13
- Celtic are unbeaten in seven straight Scottish Cup finals, going back to 2003/04
- Hearts are 8-8 all time in Scottish Cup finals, Celtic are 38-24
Road to the Final
Hearts: v Livi (1-0), v Auchinleck Talbot (4-0), @ Partick Thistle (1-1), v Partick Thistle (replay, 2-1), v Inverness Caledonian Thistle (3-0).
Celtic: v Airdrieonians (3-0), v St Johnstone (5-0), @ Hibernian (0-2), @ Aberdeen (0-3).
Last Five Meetings
|19 May 2019||Celtic||Hearts||2:1|
|27 February 2019||Hearts||Celtic||1:2|
|3 November 2018||Celtic||Hearts||5:0|
|28 October 2018 (LC)||Hearts||Celtic||0:3|
|11 August 2018||Hearts||Celtic||1:0|
Both squads are affected by injuries at key positions, but Craig Levein will be less able to replace quality with quality than his counterpart. Hearts will potentially miss talisman forward Uche Ikpeazu the most; he did not train early in the week and would be rushed back from a hamstring injury. He may start and play as long as he can. If he does miss out on Saturday, he would have been a vital out ball and has put his size and positional skills to good use in the past against Celtic defenders. Give him some space, however, and make him play on the deck; his first touch is not the greatest. Steven Naismith and Olly Lee, who ordinarily would both have started, will also miss out due to injuries.
With zero clean sheets since the split, Bobby Zlamal is not the best keeper in the Scottish Premiership. He is, however, one of those types that can up his game for the opponent and occasion, stand on his head and steal a match. To do that, though, his defence will also need to help him out. It’s one of Hearts’ stronger areas of the pitch, with captain Christophe Berra and John Souttar in the centre. Recently, Craig Levein has been playing with three centre-backs and one wingback in a 4-4-2 but none of his various options are much better than the others. I suspect he’ll go with a more traditional left back/right back pairing.
Hearts’ tactics of playing a tight, agricultural game and hoping to get a goal off a turnover or set piece should be fairly obvious. Indeed, they were spotted this week at the Oriam practicing their jersey-tugging and hand-to-hand combat skills. And thus Oliver Bozanic may get the start in midfield for his set-piece ability alone. Jake Mulraney, who scored last weekend, and Ryan Edwards might join him there. The experienced Arnaud Djoum is struggling with an Achilles injury and may not pass fit for Saturday. In the absence of Ikpeazu, Steven MacLean will sharpen his studs and start up front with Sean Clare, who has three goals in five Scottish Cup appearances this season.
Celtic are dealing with some injuries themselves, although they are more the niggling kind than the “out for months” type. It was revealed recently that Scott Brown has been playing with a broken toe – explaining both his underwhelming performances of late as well as his fashion-backward socks with slides on trophy day. Kieran Tierney, apparently completely impervious to pain at this point, has pronounced himself ready for the final, with hernia surgery immediately following; the expectation is he will be ready for European qualifiers. Jozo Simunovic, who had been playing exceptionally well of late, has also missed training this week and is touch-and-go for Saturday.
As with every Cup final, you want to play your best eleven, and in what looks like the last match of Lennon mark II, that will be no exception. Scott Bain will start between the sticks, and hopefully a second cup winner’s medal will be his reward for coming in at a time of need and doing all of what was required of him and a bit more. Celtic fans will cross their fingers and perhaps themselves due to Tierney’s inclusion in the lineup – he will give it his all, but for someone who has confessed to being in constant pain, Lennon needs to have Jonny Hayes ready in reserve. Kristoffer Ajer, another Celt coming off an excellent campaign, will pair with Jozo Simunovic or (if Jozo doesn’t pass the fitness test) Filip Benkovic. Mikael Lustig will be another starter playing through injury, and the super Swede will potentially be starting his final match in green and white having been offered a place at Malmo next year.
It should be noted that already Celtic will start two half-fit players at left and right back, something Hearts will surely try and exploit. Another half-fit starter will be Brown, the great paradox: Celtic are both better and worse with him in the lineup. Surely if you were building a Celtic team from scratch, not knowing Brown was the captain, you might not include him in your starting eleven. His frankly negative playing style when compared to his teammates stifles play going forward, and playing with a broken toe isn’t going to improve him one iota. However, he is the captain and the heart and soul of this team, and him missing a Cup final is out of the question. I would prefer moving Callum McGregor back to Brown’s place, but maybe that’s just going to have to be something for next season.
Partnering Brown in central midfield will be the aforementioned McGregor, Celtic’s club player of the year. He is going to be a massive presence in this final and should not be troubled much by Hearts’ relatively lightweight midfield. Further forward to the attacking four, Scotland POTY James Forrest will start on the right, and you’d expect Odsonne Edouard up front. The two positions that ordinarily would be filled by Tom Rogic and Scott Sinclair have become much more up in the air with Mikey Johnston’s brace last week and the star turn of Karamoko Dembele, not to mention the first full match for Olivier Ntcham in 2019.
So who gets the nods in the end? Rogic is the very definition of a Big Game Player, and I’d start him in the hopes that six matches since his return from injury is enough to get most of his mojo back. He was totally anonymous, the cliched “like a man down” against Rangers, but the big surface ought to suit him. And with only five goals to show for his entire 2018/19, you have to feel he’s due. And as for Sinclair, who played the full 90 on trophy day? It’s a coin flip between him and Johnston – representing, respectively, Celtic’s recent past and their immediate future.
Candidates for the bench include wee Dembele, Ntcham, Hayes, Benkovic (if Simunovic starts), Johnston (or Sinclair), Nir Bitton, and Lunchlady Dorus de Vries.
Key points to watch:
- As if banging on for five paragraphs on team selection for Celtic wasn’t enough, I have to mention it here as well. Two major offensive positions (the 10 and 11) are up for grabs in Neil Lennon’s likely last match at the helm, and it will be interesting to see if he goes with the tried-and-tested Celts Sinclair and Rogic or a more wild-card option with Johnston on the wing or Ntcham in the middle.
- Will Hearts be able to get their shit together for this one? Their post-split results actually left them behind seventh-place St Johnstone and level on points with eighth-place Motherwell.
- How will questionably-fit players on both sides affect the flow of the match? Celtic nearly threw away an excellent position with the man advantage on 31 March against Rangers. You remember, two tactical subs before Tierney and then Dedryck Boyata came off crocked, leaving Celtic hanging on with ten men themselves? Hearts may end up starting the injured Ikpeazu or Djoum and have similar problems.
- Referee watch: Willie Collum heads up the six-man crew for the Cup final, typically an honor reserved for the very top referees in the country (no laughing at the back). Oor Wullie has had a busy month, with two red cards and a penalty given in his last four matches, and he’ll surely have a well-marked yellow card in his pocket at the end.
- Finally, three trebles on the spin would be something to truly savour. If and when it comes to pass around 4:30 on Saturday afternoon, take a minute to enjoy it. Those of us who ask older fans “what were the Lisbon Lions like?” will surely be asked, 52 years hence, about the treble treble winners. There will be plenty of time coming up to argue about managers and new signings – for now, let’s appreciate what this great club has accomplished.
Hearts 1 – 2 Celtic
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.
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