Now that we can all come out from behind the couch after Wednesday night’s not unexpected mauling at the hands of Paris Saint-Germain, it’s time to refocus our efforts on domestic competition once more. After all, it’s time to dish out the first silverware of the season.
If only there was some link between a 7-1 scoreline and the League Cup final…
Celtic’s record in League Cup finals is almost 50:50. Of the 31 previous finals in which we’ve featured, we’ve won 16 of them and lost 15. Indeed, last season’s victory over Aberdeen in this competition put us back into a positive ratio again.
That’s not somewhere we’ve been in much in recent years! Aside from the 2009 win over Rangers, we’ve either won as many as we’ve lost or even lost more going back to the days of Jock Stein.
But it wasn’t always that bad. We did win our first two League Cup finals, back to back, in 1956/57 and 1957/58.
Oh, there’s that 7-1 link. While the first League Cup triumph was a 3-0 win over Partick Thistle in the replay following a 0-0 first match, the second was the record breaking victory over Rangers. A record that even 60 years on still stands as the biggest domestic final win in Scottish history.
No, I’m not saying British record. I already said, that’s not a thing – even if no final has ever had that big a margin of victory down south!
A defeat to Rangers in 1964/65 was our first final loss, but under Jock Stein, Celtic would win the next five League Cup finals in a row during which time Celtic won the domestic treble twice. Two again Rangers and one each against Dundee, Hibernian and St Johnstone. Curiously, we then lost the next four – Rangers ending our consecutive run, followed by defeats to Partick Thistle, Hibernian and Dundee.
Clearly then only St Johnstone didn’t manage revenge over Jock Stein’s Celtic in that run.
Hibernian lost the final to Celtic in 1974/75, however the run of fourteen consecutive final appearances finished with two defeats to Rangers, one either side of a defeat to Aberdeen.
A 1982/83 win over Rangers was followed up the following season with defeat to that same opposition, and indeed we’d lose our next two final appearances to them as well.
And then there was Raith Rovers in 1994/95. Moving swiftly on.
When Wim Jansen’s side won the League Cup against Dundee United in 1997/98, it was the first time in fifteen years that we’d won the trophy. We’d win it again in 1999/2000 against Aberdeen, and once again the following season against Kilmarnock as part of Martin O’Neill’s treble winning season.
That was O’Neill’s only triumph in the League Cup, losing the other final appearance to Rangers in 2002/03. Celtic’s next appearance was the win over Dunfermline Athletic in 2005/06 under Gordon Strachan in the final just after Jimmy Johnstone’s passing.
Strachan would see Celtic win the trophy again in 2008/09, but this trophy sadly eluded Neil Lennon despite making the final on two occasions – losing to Rangers and Kilmarnock in consecutive seasons. Ronny Deila’s 2014/15 win over Dundee United brings us almost up to date, with Brendan Rodgers getting his first trophy as Celtic manager against Aberdeen in 2016/17.
You’ll note that at no point did I mention Motherwell in that recap. Despite playing them in the Scottish Cup final on four occasions, beating them on each occasion, we’ve never met them in the final of the League Cup until this season. Motherwell have only appeared in the final on three occasions before today, winning 3-0 against Hibernian on their first appearance way back in 1950/51 before losing the finals in 1955/56 4-2 to Hearts and more recently in 2004/05 5-1 to Rangers.
Or to put that another way, Celtic’s 31 final appearances have all come after Motherwell’s solitary victory in this competition, and indeed Motherwell have only made the final once during that same period.
The road to this year’s final paints an interesting picture. Celtic have had it relatively easy thanks to a bye to the second round before 5-0 and 4-0 victories at home to Kilmarnock and away to Dundee respectively, only really being challenged in the 4-2 semi final win over Neil Lennon’s Hibernian.
Motherwell have had a far trickier road to this final though. Taking maximum points in their first round section after wins over Morton, Queen’s Park, Edinburgh City and Berwick Rangers, they then took extra time to beat the 2015/16 winners Ross County in a tricky trip to Dingwall. The quarter final then paired them with last season’s runners up Aberdeen. But rather than finding that a tricky prospect, Motherwell resoundingly beat them 3-0.
Then at Hampden last month, Motherwell weathered the storm of the new Rangers in the first half before finally overcoming them thanks to a Louis Moult second half double. The first was a bit of a scramble over the line, but the second was a sublime chip into the top corner – not the first time he’s chipped a ball into the net against a Glasgow team!
Remember that opening goal against us at Fir Park back in December? Remember how in 64 domestic matches, Motherwell are the only team to have held a two goal lead over us in all that time? Remember how we pegged them back to 2-2, only to immediately go 3-2 behind, only to then immediately get it back to 3-3 before winning it in the final minute?
Ask most people what our toughest game of the 64 has been and most will point to that Motherwell game. Even the statistics back it up, as Motherwell are still the Scottish team that have held the lead for longest against us in all that time. St Mirren are still second on that list by the way!
The concern for Celtic in this game then is that Motherwell are arguably a better team than they were last December. Their form is better, given back then they were in the bottom six whereas now they are sitting fifth having just beaten Aberdeen 2-0 at Pittodrie last weekend.
Mind you, that win ended a pretty poor run of results following their semi final victory. Although they won 1-0 at Dens Park against Dundee, they then lost 1-0 at home to Hibernian and were 3-0 down at half time in Dingwall before making it a bit more respectable in the second half and getting it back to 3-2.
So if they’re back on form, as well as more rested than Celtic having not played in Europe as we did this midweek, they’ll be well up for being the team that ends Celtic’s domestic unbeaten run and quest to retain the League Cup for the first time in 2000/01 – not to mention the possibility of the never before completed back to back treble.
Although I just did.
This is also the first of three games against Motherwell over the course of the next week! I’m sure Motherwell are glad the final is the first of those, because that probably represents their best chance of beating us. After this, we’re the team that are more used to play quick fire games, and we’ve got the bigger and more talented squad. Chances are we’ll manage this busy period better than them then.
All of that comes on top of Motherwell’s physical nature too. Remember, the semi final was full of controversial decisions where referee Steven McLean was so bad even the Ibrox faithful were claiming he was a Tim despite his brother being a former player at the old Rangers!
Indeed, most of the Motherwell interviews this week have indicated that they won’t be changing their style of play against Celtic – practically begging today’s referee Craig Thomson to let them away with it. It’s the only way to stop Celtic apparently.
Never mind that Louis Moult is actually one of the best talents in Scotland away from Celtic Park. Never mind that Motherwell are actually a capable footballing side. No, let them kick Celtic off the park to ensure we don’t keep a stranglehold over the silverware.
I’d like to think Craig Thomson will pay no attention to this and will referee the game properly, but given our last showpiece final saw Kieran Tierney go off with a busted jaw and the instigator of that wasn’t even spoken to, I’m not going to hold my breath.
I suspect this final will be more of a case of trying to ensure that we play to the best of our ability, take our chances when we get them, and ensure that no one refereeing decision is allowed to decide who picks up the trophy at the end of the game.
Hopefully by the end of the day we’ll still be in a positive win ratio of finals and not back to 50:50 again.
Krys (Twitter @krys1888)