Celtic v Aberdeen (League Cup Final)
Sunday 2 December, 15.00
Celtic aim to retain the League Cup for the third straight time. Aberdeen aim to reverse their Cup curse. It’s Cup Final Sunday!
At the moment, the Hoops are in the midst of their best form of the season. The League Cup final, on the occasions we are privileged to appear in it, is a good marker during the long campaign to take stock of where Celtic are as a team. Since that dispiriting last-minute loss at Kilmarnock on September 23, Celtic have won 8 of 9 domestically – and two European matches in a row – and sit atop the table. They couldn’t ask for a better time for a cup final and have been getting goals regularly from five or six different players.
Aberdeen are seeing Celtic in their third cup final (Scottish and League) in three years, but Hampden has not been a kind place to them. Since their 2013/14 League Cup victory, they have lost four times at the national stadium. Coming into Sunday, their latest attempt to shed the bugaboo, they sit sixth in the Premiership table amid what has been a very moribund season at Pittodrie. They struggle to average more than a goal a game, and have had a week off to stew following a disastrous 3-0 away loss in Motherwell.
- Aberdeen have not conceded a goal in their three-game run to the final.
- Celtic, domestically, have kept clean sheets in six of their last seven, and are unbeaten in six straight matches.
- Aberdeen haven’t scored two goals in a game against Celtic since the last day of the Ronny Deila regime.
Road to the Final:
Partick Thistle (A) (3-1)
St Johnstone (A) (1-0)
Hearts (N) (3-0)
St Mirren (H) (4-0)
Hibernian (A) (0-0 aet, 6-5 pen)
Rangers (N) 1-0
Last Five Meetings:
|13 May 2018||Celtic||Aberdeen||0:1|
|25 February 2018||Aberdeen||Celtic||0:2|
|23 December 2017||Celtic||Aberdeen||3:0|
|25 October 2017||Aberdeen||Celtic||0:3|
Believe it or else, the danger man for Aberdeen is Gary Mackay-Steven. The wee man from Thurso is the Dons’ top scorer (although they are averaging just over a goal per game so it’s not a long list) and has found his rhythm against opposing right backs this season. Mikael Lustig will certainly have his hands full, although Mackay-Steven has never been all that much bother to him since moving north.
Aberdeen’s lineup will feature some of the same old ineffective faces, those that personify the club perhaps coming to the “end of a cycle”. Niall McGinn, Graeme Shinnie (who at least may avoid another dispiriting 90 minutes in Scott Brown’s pocket), Andrew Considine (whose nightmares about James Forrest likely started in the small hours on Tuesday) and the samest, most ineffective face of all, that belonging to would-be small-time wrestling heel and definite wank Shay Logan.
At time of writing late Friday evening, central defender Mikey Devlin, recovering from a foot injury, is slated to be a last-minute decision for Derek McInnes. Aberdeen will be desperate for his return, as the makeshift defense put out at Motherwell was a disaster. If Devlin isn’t fit, Max Lowe would likely start at left back with Considine sliding into the center of defense.
The challenge for on-loan Man U striker James Wilson is going to be to figure out how to link up with McGinn and Mackay-Steven, while dealing with a truly formidable Celtic centre-half duo of Boyata and Benkovic. McInnes might start Dominic Ball for a bit more defensive capability; he has very few options in that part of the pitch going into Sunday.
Celtic have avoided too many injury concerns for the last six weeks (an underrated factor in their recent success), and now have a complement of first-team players ready to get back in the squad. With nine games in December it will be critical for Brendan Rodgers to ensure an effective balance of rotation and familiarity.
Dedryck Boyata and Filip Benkovic have been stellar as a defensive duo, and thank God for that because #3 on the depth chart is Jack Hendry. All joking aside they are first names on the team sheet and barring a mental lapse should be able to handle Aberdeen’s forwards with ease. They will need to be alert as Aberdeen will try and threaten from every set piece. Kieran Tierney is also a stick-on at left back. Mikael Lustig is also likely to start; Rodgers revealed that the Swede’s substitution in Norway was mainly precautionary.
Skipping ahead to the forwards, James Forrest and Odsonne Edouard will surely start and they will be a massive pain for the Aberdeen back line in the form they have shown. The forward position sur la gauche de French Eddy could be covered by either Scott Sinclair or Callum McGregor, depending on whether Scott Brown and/or Olivier Ntcham come back in the lineup.
I think, given the occasion, Brown will return, at the expense of Ryan Christie. Tom Rogic, returning from a knee injury, was superb against Rosenborg and I can’t see him missing a cup final. Christie could use a rest, and Ntcham will need to be patient; he’ll see action at Motherwell or against Killie over the next ten days.
And finally, Scott Bain, as he has throughout the League Cup campaign, will appear between the sticks for Celtic.
Celtic bench: Gordon, Griffiths, Gamboa, Hendry, Hayes, Ntcham, Christie.
Key points to watch:
- European hangover? There was some chat, possibly valid, after the 0-0 away to Livingston about whether the legs were a bit tired after the hard-fought home win over Leipzig. Celtic didn’t have to work as hard to dispatch Rosenborg, but they did travel and only have two full days between matches. Last season, they were waxed 7-1 in Paris but had an extra day of rest before the League Cup final, which was easy enough in the end.
- Referee watch: Andrew Dallas. Oh boy. I believe it was Confucius, or maybe Aristophanes, who said “Next to nepotism you will find incompetence.” In this correspondent’s opinion the honour and gravity of refereeing a cup final is way beyond Dallas’s ability or, for that matter, his desert.
- Aberdeen’s defense. As noted, Derek McInnes is short of defenders and in this game he will need a titanic performance from those he does have available. It needs to be a true team effort to keep a lid on Celtic these days, and Aberdeen will be hoping (“desperately” in the words of their keeper Joe Lewis) for a win; a 2-1, 1-0 kind of scoreline.
Prediction: Celtic 3, Aberdeen 0
(Original logo art by Frankie Mitchell)