PAUL JOHN DYKES:
Neil Lennon has managed the threat of a European hangover well for the visit of Hibs by playing a shadow side against Cluj on Thursday night.
When the squad departs Glasgow Airport on Wednesday afternoon and arrives back in the early hours of Friday morning, with the small matter of a Europa League encounter thrown in between for good measure, there is no doubt that European endeavours take their toll on the bread-and-butter of the subsequent domestic fixtures.
From the XI who started in the Dr. Constantin Rădulescu Stadium, we are likely to see Christopher Jullien, Leigh Griffiths, Moritz Bauer, Mikey Johnston and Olivier Ntcham making the cut for the visit of Hibs. Kris Ajer, who was a second-half stand-out against Cluj, should also start, with Scott Robertson hopefully doing enough on his debut to make the bench.
The big guns of Fraser Forster, Scott Brown, Ryan Christie, James Forrest, Odsonne Edouard and Mohammed Elyounoussi should all return to give the Celtic side a more familiar feel from the one that faced the Romanians on Thursday night.
Hibs travel to Celtic Park five games into the tenure of Jack Ross. Three wins and a draw, with the only blot in the copy book being an away defeat to Ross County, will ensure that the Leith side will be looking to pilfer something from their visit to Glasgow’s east end. Ross was a 1-1 specialist during his time at Sunderland, so I’d expect a backs-to-the-wall performance against Neil Lennon’s reigning champs.
To combat such a frustratingly familiar proposition, the inventiveness and verve of Ryan Christie, James Forrest and Mikey Johnston will be key to Celtic breaching what is sure to be an ultra-defensive Hibs line-up.
Following under-par performances against Hamilton and Rangers, then the non-event in Cluj, Lenny will want to get back to the type of form that made the Celtic support quickly forget about the departures of Brendan Rodgers and Kieran Tierney.
It will be interesting to see who is selected as Lennon’s sole striker. Odsonne Edouard was rested following his League Cup final exertions and might be fully fit for Hibs, but Griffiths looked energetic against Cluj and would benefit from another start.
Regardless, I predict a comfortable 3-0 win for Celtic with Ryan Christie getting on the scoresheet.Listen to the latest episode of the award-winning A Celtic State of Mind
Celtic’s run of playing average to poor whilst winning (and bringing home trophies) inevitably ended in Romania in midweek.
The disruption to the front line, not having a fit striker, has been felt. Mitigating it by moving Forrest and Christie out of position as well has not been a disaster but Celtic’s attacking fluency has definitely suffered. Celtic have scored more than double their xG in the last 5 games. That rarely lasts.
But the injuries are clearing and a semblance of an optimally configured starting XI should be seen at home to Jack Ross’s Hibernian.
Under the new manager, they are up to 6th and 10 points clear of bottom after flirting with early-season relegation form. Since he took up position there have been 3 SPFL wins, a draw and a defeat to Ross County to remind of existing weaknesses.
Goals are still being conceded with the impressive 3-0 home defeat of Aberdeen the only clean sheet. Their 29 against is 7 more than anyone else in the top 6.
Marciano came back in goal for the Dons win. The other major tweak by Ross is to drop Mallan to the bench. The playmaker is similar to Allan but without the industry. The taller and more athletic Slivka is preferred. The striker Doidge has been given more minutes and a run under Ross and is now up to 7 goals in 12 SPFL starts.
Overall, Allan remains their creative threat with 4 goals and 5 assists at 0.6 scoring contributions per 90m.
Hibernian concede the 3rd highest shots against in the league with 214. And whilst they have scored 8 goals in the last 30 minutes of games, they have conceded 19, the highest in the league.
Incredibly, they have lost the lead 8 times in 17 matches, drawing 6 from winning positions and losing 2.
All that points to a lack of strong mentality and perhaps also questionable fitness.
Celtic’s strengthening squad after injury may have to be patient but expect the champions to ease away later on in the game. I’d go for 3-1 with Edouard returning to the goals.Watch Professor Willy Maley with A Celtic State of Mind