League Cup Final Preview
Celtic take on Rangers in Sunday’s League Cup Final with both sides going into the match on extensive unbeaten runs. In fact, both sides enter the fixture on a run of 9 consecutive wins in all competitions since the derby draw at Ibrox in January. Something’s got to give by the time Nick Walsh brings Sunday’s game to a close.
We take a look at some of the key areas where Celtic will be looking to come out on top in order to make sure that it is the Green and White half of Glasgow that is celebrating once again come the final whistle.
CASE FOR THE DEFENCE
The back line of Hart; Johnston, Carter-Vickers, Starfelt, and Taylor, largely picks itself these days when all 5 are fit and available for selection, and there is little wonder why.
The Celtic defence is the meanest in the Cinch Premiership having conceded 18 goals in the competition so far this season; 0.52 goals less than their expected Goals Against (xGA) according to Wyscout data. In comparison, Rangers 23 goals conceded in the same competition is 5.59 more than their xGA.
One of the key components in Celtic’s tight defence of late has been consistency in selection of the backline. The preferred back 5 have started the last 5 games together, providing a clear example of how Ange is building a strong defensive unit.
While the attacking attributes of Taylor and Johnston in the inverted full back roles cannot be underestimated, both will, however, need to be alert defensively to the pace and movement of likely Rangers starters Kent, Sakala, and Cantwell.
Johnston looked to have the matching of Kent for the majority of the game at Ibrox and will draw on those experiences tomorrow as he attempts to shut the Englishman out.
Taylor, on the other flank, may need to curb some of his attacking enthusiasm at times to manage the threat of Sakala’s pace in behind, however, the Celtic man has shown the ability time and again to rise to the big occasion and Sunday’s game should be no different.
Carter-Vickers was a rock at the heart of the defence in January’s encounter and I would expect no less from the imposing American at Hampden. Both he and Starfelt have developed a top-class partnership over the past season and a half, providing a solid foundation from which much of Celtic’s success is built.
THE GREAT MIDFIELD DILEMMA
In his article earlier this week, James McKenzie posed the question of who plays alongside McGregor and Hatate in the midfield; Aaron Mooy or Matt O’Riley.
The debate over who occupies the second #8 role in the starting team has been the most lively in the run up to Sunday’s game, with both players posing impressive arguments for their inclusion.
Since returning from the World Cup Aaron Mooy has been in irrepressible form, contributing 6 goals and 3 assists in 13 post World Cup appearances; a goal contribution of 0.93 per 90.
However, it is his calmness and composure on the ball in midfield that could be most crucial in the powder keg atmosphere of a Glasgow Derby Cup final. The Australian ranks highly in key passing metrics for progressive passing and passes to the final third, as well as general passing accuracy – second only to Callum McGregor – highlighting his ability to maintain possession and hurt opponents.
Breathing down Mooy’s neck for a starting role is Danish under-21 International Matt O’Riley.
Youthful, energetic, and Celtic’s leading provider of goals with 9 assists in all competitions this season, O’Riley offers a different proposition.
Often found popping up in the half-space on the right, O’Riley has proven himself to be a constant danger in the Hoops with his dynamic approach on the ball and ability to hurt defences with his probing passes.
After a slump in form, by his high standards, O’Riley’s recent inclusion in the team against Livingston and Aberdeen saw a personal return to form and reintroduction of his partnership with Jota on the right of the attack. A combination of speed and skill that could be too much for Barisic to cope with on Sunday.
LORDS ON THE WINGS
With Kyogo expected to start as the centre forward, the final debate surrounds who will occupy the wide berths in Celtic’s front three. Jota, Maeda, and Abada are the most likely options, with a surprise inclusion of Forrest or Hakšabanović from the start seeming highly unlikely.
Jota looks most likely to be guaranteed a start – if such a thing exists with Ange – due to being quite possibly the most naturally talented player in the country.
The Portuguese has the ability to play on either flank, the skill to cut inside or hit the byline, and the trickery to get the better of either Tavernier or Barisic. The question seems to be not whether Jota starts, but on which wing.
An oft discussed topic is Celtic’s left-side bias, with a high percentage of Celtic’s attacking play coming down the left. The Taylor – Hatate – Jota combination has brought much success to Celtic on the left-hand side and the prospect of watching Jota facing up against Tavernier and cutting inside on to his favoured fight foot, creating passing and shooting opportunities is truly mouth-watering.
As is the prospect, should O’Riley get the nod in midfield, of watching the dynamic duo of Jota and the Dane interlinking on the right and giving Rangers another headache to deal with.
With Jota sure to start, the question is who takes the other wide position, and the answer to that depends on the above and which wing Jota starts on.
My preference would be to see Jota on the right – regardless of whether Mooy or O’Riley starts in midfield – and Maeda take position on the left.
The Japanese forward’s work rate, pace, and lightning quick reactions give him all the attributes required to get in to the space behind Rangers high full backs and, again, the prospect of seeing him use his raw pace to attack Tavernier is one that is eagerly anticipated.
Maeda’s inclusion would also offer Celtic a more balanced approach in attack, with high-level threats on both wings coupled with the intelligence of Kyogo through the middle.
Having Abada waiting to come off the bench and occupy an inverted right-wing position in the latter stages – one that he has enjoyed a great deal of joy in on derby day – is another exciting and game changing option available to Ange.
IF WE PLAY WELL, WE’LL WIN
In his notebook ahead of the 1989 European Cup Final against Steaua București, AC Milan coach Arrigo Sacchi made the simple observation:
“If we play well, we’ll win”
The same stands true for Celtic on Sunday afternoon. Play to our strengths, impose our style on the game, and have faith in the processes that have taken us to another final and we’ll win.
Honest mistakes aside, it really is as simple as that.