Celtic travel to Easter Road tonight for the penultimate game of the league season, looking to put an end to a disappointing recent run of form that has seen the Hoops pick up just one point since being crowned champions.
With the Scottish Cup final to look forward to at the beginning of June, Ange has opted to experiment with his starting line-ups in the past two games. Bernabei, Kobayashi, Iwata, and Oh have all been given starting roles, with varying degrees of success.
This all begs the question: Will Ange experiment some more tonight, or return to something more akin to a full-strength side?
The decision to start Tomoki Iwata at centre-back alongside Carl Starfelt at the weekend raised more than a few eyebrows. Yuki Kobayashi, who had come into the side in Carter-Vickers absence was expected to retain his position in the lead-up to the final despite a couple of rocky performances. However, Iwata, who has played as a centre-back in Japan, was given the nod to go up against Curtis Main.
It is fair to say that the experiment did not quite work out as intended. Iwata and Ralston were both at fault for Main’s first goal, and Iwata generally struggled against the physical St. Mirren forward throughout the game.
That said, Iwata’s distribution and on-the-ball play remained at a consistently high-level and, while the jury is out on his continuation at centre-back for the time being, Iwata does give Celtic another defensive option if needs be.
However, given the proximity to the Cup final, most fans would be looking at having a settled defensive partnership going into the game. Whether that is Starfelt Kobayashi or Starfelt and Iwata remains to be seen.
Elsewhere, the midfield of McGregor, O’Riley, and Hatate still looks to be the best fit for the Cup final. Looking at tonight’s game, the question mark here is whether Ange decides to give Callum a night off and bring either David Turnbull in from the cold or move Iwata up one into the middle of the park.
Turnbull is a player who could do grabbing whatever minutes he can between now and the end of the season to either force his way back into Ange’s plans or put himself in the shop window.
And then there is the prospect of giving some of the Academy players a chance to show what they can do. Rocco Vata and Ben Summers have both experienced first-team action recently, while Bosun Lawal has featured on the bench periodically.
We know that Ange does not give out minutes for free, however, there have been hints at Academy players getting some game time and tonight would be as good an opportunity as any.
Back to Full Strength
However, with momentum having been lost in the last couple of games, Ange may look to tonight and Saturday’s final game of the season as dry runs for the Cup final. If so, then a return to a full-strength starting XI to regain momentum and form ahead of the final may be Ange’s choosing.
Kyogo returned to the side at the weekend replacing Oh and made an immediate impact, scoring Celtic’s first equaliser with an emphatic finish. While Oh is a good prospect, Kyogo has proven himself time and again as a top-level forward whose goals are vital to Celtic.
The return of Greg Taylor helped bring stability to the left-hand side of the defence, while his marauding into the inverted full-back role allowed Hatate more freedom (and confidence) to get forward.
Tonight’s team selection could be very telling in how Ange views this game and its importance in preparing for the Cup final. A game that Celtic cannot afford to underestimate.
Celtic and Hibs have faced each other three times this season with Celtic coming out on top on each occasion. The aggregate score line so far is 13-2 for Celtic.
James Forrest – remember him – helped himself to a hat trick in the opening meeting of the sides in October. Giakoumakis (2) and Maeda were the other scorers as Celtic ran out 6-1 winners at Celtic Park.
In the first meeting at Easter Road, Aaron Mooy scored a Christmas double in a 4-0 rout; Kyogo and Maeda rounded off the scoring.
And in the last meeting in March, Celtic came from a goal down to win 3-1 thanks to late goals from Oh and Haksabanovic.
Both sides have picked up 8 points from their last 5 games as they show signs of end-of-season fatigue. However, as the previous matches between the sides have shown, we could be in for a few goals tonight and hopefully, it is David Marshall who is picking the ball out of his net more frequently than Joe Hart.