Biggest Game of the Season… Again

Scottish Cup semi final weekend. Some are billing this as our biggest game of the season. I’m not sure I’d agree, but it’s certainly the most important game we have left at the moment.

Unless we win it of course.

That’s the thing with “biggest game of the season”, it’s a moving target. When you look at the whole of the 2016/17 season, you’ll probably find that the Champions League qualifiers and a few of the group stage games were more important than this weekend’s match. They certainly came against better opposition. The two legged playoff tie against Hapoel Be’er Sheva was certainly the most valuable in terms of both finances and prestige.

You could argue league wins over Aberdeen and this weekend’s opponents near the start of the season were bigger too, as we thumped them 4-1 and 5-1 respectively. Beating Aberdeen in the League Cup final was probably bigger as well, since it gave Brendan Rodgers his first piece of silverware as Celtic manager.

But right now, with the Champions League a distant memory, and the league title already added to that League Cup triumph with trophy day against Hearts awaiting us on May 21st, this Scottish Cup game is absolutely vital in maintaining our treble dreams.

Since we last did the domestic clean sweep in 2000/01 under Martin O’Neill, we’ve only come this close to winning the lot on one other occasion. Ronny Deila’s first season in charge had Celtic winning the League Cup and the league title was looking good and would ultimately be secured at the start of May, but by that time we had fallen at this same stage to Inverness.

The less said about dodgy decisions going the way of the Highlanders the better. We had enough of that against Ross County last weekend after all. Mind you, we weren’t alone. Inverness were on the end of their own dodgy decision last weekend too, as Motherwell were awarded a goal that apparently never crossed the line.

Unfortunately for us, the referee who awarded that goal was Willie Collum – the same referee we have for this season’s semi final. He’ll be assisted on one of the goal-lines by Don Robertson, the referee that reckoned Erik Sviatchenko fouled Alex Schalk.

That’s what we’re up against. Referees who most weeks will tell you that you have to be sure to give decisions, yet two of them this weekend could only have guessed – and guessed wrongly.

And then you remember who we’re playing.

Of the four previous games we’ve had against so called Rangers this season, the referee has given a massively favourable decision in their favour twice. In the League Cup semi final, Sviatchenko had a perfectly good goal ruled out by Craig Thomson, while in the 1-1 draw at Celtic Park we had a clear penalty denied as Leigh Griffiths was about to pull the trigger.

Those two decisions directly cost us goals in those games, and the latter likely cost us the victory.

That’s leaving aside all the other odd decisions of course, like the tackle on Patrick Roberts in March or the wayward cross-field pass that so called Rangers made that resulted in a throw in for… so called Rangers.

Speaking of dodgy throw ins, because whenever you bring up how decisions never seem to go against “Rangers” they’ll quickly point to the Scottish Cup final of 1989 where Joe Miller’s winner came from a throw in that should have went their way, that was evened out in last year’s semi. The then Championship side’s second goal came directly from a throw in that should have gone our way.

But then after mentioning that decision they quickly run out of other decisions. The best they can come up with currently seem to be alleged dives where… nothing was given. Basically, 28 years of football and the best they can manage is one wrong throw in that they still should have defended better, as we should have done last season.

Okay then, if it’s the “same club” and the old adage is true then that has finally “evened itself out”. Does that mean we can now look forward to all the decisions they’ve had since 1989 coming our way over the next three decades? Jorge Cadete’s offside goal, John Hartson’s offside goal, the Shaun Maloney and Neil Lennon penalties, Marc-Antoine Fortune’s non-challenge on Allan McGregor… oh yes, and those two I already mentioned from this season. To name but a few. We’ll get those back now, right?

Aye right.

This Rangers Scottish Cup semi final record is 50/50. This is their third semi final in five years. In 2013/14 they lost at “neutral” Ibrox to Dundee United, while last season they reached their first big domestic final by eliminating us on penalties. Of course, Mark Warburton’s side will forever go down in history as the team against whom Hibernian finally broke their 114 year wait for the trophy.

Annoyingly, that wasn’t the only time recently that we’ve missed out on the chance to play Hibernian in a final, and that probably gives me the fear more than anything else.

Aberdeen play Hibernian on Saturday, meaning we’ll know who the first finalist is before we kick off. Four times in the last five years it’s been Hibernian waiting in the final as we’ve played the second semi final, and three of those we’ve lost!

As well as last season’s Scottish Cup semi final which saw Hibernian emerge victorious, it was the same story when we faced Ross County in last season’s League Cup semi final. Of course, it wasn’t the same story for Hibernian as Ross County won their first ever domestic honour.

Prior to that, Hearts beat us in the Scottish Cup semi final in 2012 to set up the Edinburgh derby final which they won 5-1. Indeed, the only time recently that we’ve actually made it through to face Hibernian was when we beat Dundee United, and even that took extra time to eventually win 4-3 in 2013.

Of course, Aberdeen could still have a big say in that part of it as they try to beat the holders and reach their first Scottish Cup final since the old Rangers broke Jim Leighton’s jaw early on in the final in 2000 and they had to put Robbie Winters in goal. They know it’s been too long since they’ve been in the final, and it’s another decade back to find their last win there – a 9-8 win on penalties against us unfortunately.

But back to our semi final.

To get to this point, we’ve seen off Albion Rovers 3-0, Inverness 6-0 and St Mirren 4-1. Our opponents beat Motherwell 2-1, Morton 2-1, and Hamilton 6-0.

Mind you, two of those ties for them were under Warburton while the latter was under caretaker manager Graeme Murty. Since their 1-1 draw with us in the league at Celtic Park, they’ve brought in new manager Pedro Caixinha. He’ll no doubt be relishing his first crack at the best team in Scotland having been in the stand the last time we met, and I’m sure he’ll use both the 1-1 draw and their more recent results since he took over as proof that they are more than capable of going toe to toe with us.

Of the five games Caixinha has been in charge, they’ve won three and drawn two. While wins over Hamilton and Partick Thistle at home might seem routine, it was the 3-0 win at Pittodrie that would raise a few eyebrows.

Mind you, the scoreline flattered to deceive. Aberdeen could have and should have not only scored but been out of sight long before the final 11 minutes of the game. They weren’t, and Aberdeen completely self-destructed at the back to let Kenny Miller score twice and Joe Dodoo score once and even hit the bar once too.

Miller is likely to be the man we need to watch. He might be in the twilight of his career, but he is still scoring vital goals at the moment and he seems to have a knack of scoring against us too. He did it at Ibrox back in December after all, and he created two of the other three goals they’ve scored against us this season too.

But for me it’s the midfield where we’ll need to be careful. Scott Brown is lucky to be back in the team thanks to the SFA’s bizarre inability to work the week after a public holiday, but he’ll need to ensure we win the battles in there – fairly this time, no more red mist from our Captain please!

Even before Caixinha arrived, Wes Foderingham in goal has been a pain to beat for many teams, including us, and Emerson Hyndman was looking to be a decent loan signing for them. Indeed, he was the man we failed to close down for their late equaliser last month, albeit it was Clint Hill who knocked in the rebound, and he seems to have been linking up well of late with fellow loan signing Jon Toral.

If you need any more evidence of that, watch their second goal against Partick Thistle at the weekend.

Regardless of what they do, we need to be at our best this weekend. We’ve already seen this season what happens if we’re not. We started slow in December and had to come from behind to win at Ibrox. Last month we let them back in after taking the lead, and in doing so we allowed a late refereeing decision affect the overall result.

This time let’s make sure we’re at the top of our game so that any threat is neutralised. That goes for Miller, Foderingham, Hyndman, Toral, Collum and Robertson alike.

Krys (Twitter @krys1888)

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