The Betfred Gamble

The league is off and running, Europe is guaranteed until Christmas and our tie against Astana will decide which tier of Europe that’s in, so now we get to add the defence of the Betfred Cup – aka the League Cup – to mix.

Because it would be silly to give us a rest ahead of the Champions League playoff round, wouldn’t it?

The first round group stage of the League Cup took place entirely before the league started, and with Hearts the only real notable casualty from that, we now have the four European representatives joining the tournament for the second round. Of course, three of them have come and gone from Europe, and indeed it was over a month between competitive games for two of them.

We’ve not had as much moaning about the group stages this season as we did last season, but then that may be because Mark Warburton wasn’t managing in it this time. It’s not like it didn’t throw up some oddities, with pointless penalty shootouts taking place and perhaps most bizarrely the Dundee teams facing off in the group and then immediately being drawn against each other in this round.

Nevertheless, the group stages did have excitement. On the same night that we were playing our Champions League qualifier in Belfast, an Ayrshire derby took place and not for the first time in recent years it was the lower league Ayr United that triumphed over top flight Kilmarnock. That 1-0 defeat didn’t stop Kilmarnock progressing, but it did mean they weren’t seeded in the draw and now face a trip to Celtic Park.

Not that Ayr United being seeded helped matters as they were drawn against unseeded Hibernian. But that’s what happens when you seed the four European teams and add them to eight group winners and four runners-up. Four group winners won’t be seeded, and Hibernian were one of those four.

The fact that only the best four runners-up progress was what stopped Kilmarnock last season. Despite finishing second in their group behind Morton, they were actually seventh of the eight runners-up with only seven points from their four games. This time round they were fourth, beating out Peterhead on goal difference after gaining a point less than the other three runners-up Ross County, Partick Thistle and Dundee.

In addition to their defeat to Ayr United, Kilmarnock won their matches against Clyde 4-2, Annan Athletic 2-0 and Dumbarton 3-0, but lost 2-1 at home to St Johnstone in their opening league fixture at the weekend.

Kilmarnock have been busy in the transfer market, picking up former Motherwell players Lee Erwin and Dom Thomas, as well as former Rangers player Chris Burke. All three scored in the League Cup group stages, while the familiar name of Kris Boyd has also been on the scoresheet. Most recently, Boyd pinged in the equaliser against St Johnstone on Saturday from a long distance free kick.

Of course, Kris Boyd has only ever scored once against Celtic in his whole career. And that wasn’t in either of his spells at Kilmarnock. Long may that statistic continue.

The three signings mentioned here show Kilmarnock have been picking up experienced signings, as does getting the likes of Cammy Bell, Gordon Greer, Stephen O’Donnell and Kirk Broadfoot. In theory Lee McCulloch’s team shouldn’t be too easy to beat, although two bits of nice skill seemed to be enough for St Johnstone on Saturday.

Despite Boyd’s awful record against Celtic, Kilmarnock did score in both visits to Celtic Park last season. Indeed, they were one of just a handful of domestic teams that took the lead against Celtic, only to be beaten in the end. Souleymane Coulibaly was the man to score the wondergoal into Dorus de Vries to open the scoring in September last year before quickly being pegged back by a Moussa Dembele equaliser. Celtic eventually won 6-1 thanks to another goal from Dembele, as well as goals from James Forrest, Leigh Griffiths, Scott Sinclair and Tom Rogic.

In the other game at Celtic Park in April, it was Celtic that took lead through Stuart Armstrong, but conceded an equaliser to Jordan Jones before going on to win the game with two further goals from Scott Sinclair and James Forrest.

In our only visit to Rugby Park last season, it was a tough game with Kilmarnock defending resolutely until just before half time when Armstrong found his way through for the only goal of the game.

This visit to Celtic Park for Kilmarnock will be the first of two games in quick succession between the two sides, with Celtic due to travel to Rugby Park next weekend in between the two legs against Astana. Of course, we’ve a Glasgow derby to play before any of that too, but more on that later in the week.

At this point last season, Celtic had just beaten Astana and managed to dispatch Motherwell 5-0 with several second string choices on the park. Saidy Janko, Eoghan O’Connell, and Emilio Izaguirre all started in defence, with Anthony Ralston and Jamie McCart coming off the bench later on. This was back when Dembele was second to Griffiths as well, remember, and he scored twice that night!

Chances are, Brendan Rodgers will do likewise this time. With Erik Sviatchenko out until September and Dedryck Boyata out until October, you can imagine that Jozo Simunovic will be wrapped in cotton wool for the Astana tie. Nir Bitton has already filled in for most of the game against Rosenborg and the whole game against Hearts. Kristoffer Ajer was used in the first leg against Rosenborg as well, and it seems like we won’t be making any more signings back there.

Even if we did, it would be a bit late to face Kilmarnock.

I’ve no doubt that winning everything is the target again this season. When is it not the target at Celtic? Most people don’t talk winning trebles until you’ve got two in the bag and a third one in sight, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t target to win every game and therefore every trophy. We’ll target to win this particular cup tie as any other game, but in the grand scheme of our season there are more important fixtures this month. And if that means picking a League Cup team with the Champions League in mind, then so be it.

But anyone who is picked to play in this particular match will be expected to perform regardless of where they are in the pecking order. Hopefully they’ll do just that, and maybe show they should be going beyond the second string. After all, there’s no greater headache for a manager than having to decide which in-form talented player to choose for the big game!

Krys (Twitter @krys1888)

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