Thirteen points clear at the top of the table, and coming off a pulsating derby victory, Celtic aim to continue their unbeaten 2019 under the lights in Paisley. Maybe it’s been heavy weather at times, but who can argue with results? Celtic are unbeaten in 14 straight Scottish fixtures including league and cup, with only one draw slightly marring the finish on the last three months. The league is effectively if not mathematically done and dusted, and the Hoops will be able to operate with a little breathing room before the Scottish Cup semifinal in a fortnight’s time.
With two matches against bottom-six opposition before the semi and the split, Neil Lennon has the opportunity to rotate his lineup without too much on the line. Fortunately, Celtic’s incredibly bad injury luck has been balanced out with incredible last-minute winner luck, so this merry band marches on to eight in a row. With some of the pressure off, can Lennon’s Celtic really start to bring the heat and get back to top scoring form?
St Mirren are struggling just to keep themselves above the relegation line. A 2-1 home victory over Dundee reversed 11th and 12th, and the Buddies now find themselves two points above the automatic drop and looking to catch Hamilton, four points ahead in tenth. Two wins and a draw in their last five represent their best form of the season, and a 0-0 result the last time Celtic came to town should give Oran Kearney’s eleven some degree of confidence. They have been given a template for frustrating Celtic, but being able to execute it is another story.
Stats & Facts Corner:
- Four of Celtic’s last five wins have come from last-minute winners.
- Celtic are unbeaten in the last 11 against the Buddies (W9 D2).
- Celtic have scored more than two goals only once in their last eight.
- After much was made of Celtic’s comparatively weak record away from home, they have won five in a row on the road.
|23 January 2019||Celtic||St Mirren||4:0|
|14 September 2018||St Mirren||Celtic||0:0|
|5 March 2017 (SC)||Celtic||St Mirren||4:1|
|3 April 2015||St Mirren||Celtic||0:2|
|14 December 2014||Celtic||St Mirren||4:1|
I had a look at St Mirren’s recent lineups, mostly a series of 3-5-2 with a generally settled eleven save for injury and suspension rotation. However, I find it hard to believe that they’d line up similar to any of them against Celtic, even with all to play for in the Buddies’ bid to stay in the Premiership. A 4-4-2 might be more prudent and at the end of the day, like most of Celtic’s opponents, St Mirren are going to find themselves with ten men behind the ball.
Celtic, under normal circumstances and perhaps playing a better opponent, might have a real selection headache on their hands. Boyata and Tierney will very likely not be available for this one, it’s probably too early for Ryan Christie, Rogic and Ntcham are still well short of peak fitness. However, the big lead at the top of the table takes a lot of the anxiety out of this one, and a lineup is surely available to Neil Lennon that can take care of St Mirren.
Scott Bain will continue his reign in goals; despite having conceded at the weekend, he has performed exceptionally well since he took hold of the jersey at the start of 2019. If he were two or three inches taller there would be Premier League speculation around him, but who knows? Maybe we’re looking at our keeper for the next decade.
Bain will be joined in defense by man-mountain Kristoffer Ajer, who I can comfortably say is Celtic’s first-choice centre-back at the moment. Whether he’ll be joined by Simunovic or Benkovic is a question of fitness and philosophy; if both are healthy do you play the man signed to Celtic or the man who’s off back to rat-infested Leicester in six weeks’ time? The answer is Jozo Simunovic, the man who leapt fifteen feet off the bench celebrating James Forrest’s game winner on Sunday. And don’t rule out a Marvin Compper sighting at some point. Jonny Hayes and Mikael Lustig will start at left and right back, respectively. (I had thought perhaps Anthony Ralston might feature at right back, but he started for the reserves on Tuesday.)
The midfield prediction offers some interesting choices. Do you rest Scott Brown after an exhilarating performance in the derby? He may be in for a little extra refereeing scrutiny. I say yes. If you want Brown up to his best for the big matches, you’ve got to start to rest him in the matches that mean comparatively little, and this is one of them. Besides, Olivier Ntcham needs game time, so I go with the midfield two of McGregor and Ntcham. The Frenchman will get a chance to set things right after an appalling performance in Paisley last time out, where he was sent off for two bookings in the first half.
Further forward, Tom Rogic, who moved like he was wearing lead boots on Sunday, is also in obvious need of game time. At his best he is unplayable in Scotland, and even if he is a passenger for much of the game he is always capable of one moment of brilliance. 60 minutes out of him before making way for a Burke/Weah type would be perfect to keep getting him tuned up in advance of the Scottish Cup semifinal. I think he will be joined on either wing by James Forrest and Mikey Johnston – Scott Sinclair may be rapidly dropping out of favour at Parkhead.
And up front, it can be no one other than Odsonne Edouard. I wrote in the Dundee preview that Celtic didn’t sign a £9 million striker to have him sit on the bench, and his goals against Dundee and Rangers, coupled with his assist for the winning goal and overall excellent play Sunday, have absolutely backed that up – merci beaucoup, Odsonne.
Key points to watch:
- Who’s in, who’s out? A lot has been made about players who might have fallen in or out of favour after the recent managerial change – Scott Sinclair perhaps being an example of someone who is out. With some room to experiment, will mad scientist Neil Lennon give game time to someone like Scott Allan or Marvin Compper, or stick with the usual suspects to see out the season?
- Come out or sit in? St Mirren need all the points they can muster before the split, but will Oran Kearney’s game plan involve trying to play football, or will they sit in and try and steal a goal on the counter attack? That approach didn’t work so well for Dundee in the end, and merely hoping Celtic are again off the boil offensively isn’t a good long-term strategy when your place in the Premiership is at stake.
- Referee watch: Don Robertson gives us a break from Bobby Madden. Lennon has plenty of previous with Robertson, having called him “abysmal” (2018, after losing to Celtic) and “completely out of his depth” (2017, after drawing with Hamilton). But referees have short memories, right? Right?
Prediction: St Mirren 0-2 Celtic