Friday night football for Celtic again this week, and it’s a biggy. The best two teams in the country are going face to face for the fifth time this season, and both will have an eye on the sixth and final meeting between the two in the Scottish Cup final later this month.
So as such I have absolutely no idea what we’re going to see tonight!
From Aberdeen’s perspective, the job was done last week when they beat Hearts 2-1. With three games to go they’re nine points clear of third place with a goal difference that’s better by 23. In other words, even if the nine point swing happens, that goal difference isn’t going to be made up. Realistically second place is secure, and Aberdeen’s thoughts can turn to preparing for the cup final against us on the 27th.
Of course, they have similar concerns to our own when it comes to next season.
With their European campaign unbelievably scheduled to start at the end of June, unless they get a bit of luck with the Europa League winner and get bumped into the second qualifying round, they may view these next couple of weeks as a chance to rest their stars just as we did last week to some extent.
But then again, maybe they’ll be thinking about how they haven’t managed to beat Celtic this season. If they can go into the Scottish Cup final knowing they beat Celtic just two weeks earlier in the league then that might just give them the confidence boost they may need to go on and lift that trophy. After all, their poor performance against us in the League Cup final will still be playing on their minds, so they could probably do with something to show.
But what if they put out their first team and Celtic don’t? Does that prove they can beat what they’ll face in the final, or does it render it meaningless? Certainly you would expect Scott Brown to feature at Hampden at the end of the month, yet we all know he’ll be serving the second game of his suspension at Pittodrie tonight. He could quite conceivably be the key difference between winning and losing that final later this month.
That’s assuming Brown is the only change we make too. Is anyone expecting Mikael Lustig to be back this week? It might not be Anthony Ralston that plays right back this week, but Christian Gamboa might fancy his chances there now after missing out against St Johnstone.
Then of course there’s the cloggers factor.
I’m not saying Aberdeen are planning anything untoward, but if you know you’ve a far more important game coming up in a couple of weeks and you have the chance to ensure a key player for your opposition isn’t playing, wouldn’t you at least consider it? Would you be that cynical? I hope not, but you never know.
Moussa Dembele hasn’t been ruled out of the Scottish Cup final just yet, but I still reckon Celtic will be keen to ensure Leigh Griffiths is fully fit and ready for Hampden just in case Dembele doesn’t make it back in time. It’s not like we have any other realistic choices up front beyond that, it would be a massive ask of Jack Aitchison!
Well I say there’s no choices, but the last time we played Aberdeen back in February was one of those games where neither Dembele nor Griffiths were available and we had to go with the front three of Scott Sinclair, Patrick Roberts and James Forrest. While that lineup seems to work well against Hearts, when faced with Aberdeen it’s a far more difficult task. Indeed, the game in question only finished 1-0 thanks to a Dedryck Boyata header from a set-piece.
The scoreline was similar the last time we were at Pittodrie too. Tom Rogic was the man to get the goal that separated the sides, but at least this time it was more a case of the score being kept down by Aberdeen’s goalkeeper Joe Lewis. His save from Sinclair in the second half especially when it looked destined for the top corner was a terrific stop that kept his team in the game.
That win stopped the rot at Pittodrie, where we had lost the previous twice under Ronny Deila, both by a 2-1 scoreline. But a lot has changed at Celtic since those days. Yesterday marked a full calendar year since our last domestic defeat after all, and I’m sure we’ll be keen to keep that run going as long as possible.
With just three games to go in the league, going the season unbeaten doesn’t seem such a pipedream any more. If it were to slip at this stage it would seem far more disappointing than if we had slipped up much earlier in the season. But of course, of all of the post-split fixtures this is probably the one that sticks out most as the one where it could slip.
Mind you, some would have said that about Ibrox. Look how that turned out.
Aberdeen’s home form this season has been almost terrific. Up until recently they had won ten home games in a row, and were twelve home games unbeaten since our win up there in October. Indeed, that defeat to Celtic was their only home defeat of the season until a few weeks ago.
But then so called Rangers turned up and despite Aberdeen dominating large spells of the game they had a mad five minutes in the closing stages of the game and managed to lose 3-0. They’ve also since lost 2-0 to St Johnstone at Pittodrie, leaving some wondering if Aberdeen’s post-split form of recent years is to continue this season.
Last season they lost four of their five fixtures after the split, while the previous season they lost three and drew one. Indeed, they’ve only won one post-split game in each of the last five seasons, and two of them were in the bottom six!
Well, as I said earlier, Aberdeen beat Hearts last weekend so that quota has already been fulfilled this season.
So I return to my earlier point. I have no idea what we’ll get tonight. We might put out a strong team, or we might pepper the team with development squad players again. If we do that then it might work out as well as Ralston and Mikey Johnston did last week, or it might not. Aberdeen might go out to try and win a second post-split fixture for the first time since 2011, ruining our unbeaten record in the process and setting themselves up nicely for the cup final. Then again, they might rest a few and give away nothing for the final.
This game has the feeling of a psychological battle more than anything. Both teams know the points don’t really matter, but both will be keen not to give away anything that might give the other an advantage for the cup final.
How that translates onto the park will be interesting to see. I’d definitely prefer to see us scudding Aberdeen once again, ideally reaching a ton of goals and points in the league given we only need four goals and three points to do that. But you suspect that if this game turns out to be a cagey draw then no one will be all that disappointed.
Except the mathematicians who still think there’s a race for second of course.
Krys (Twitter @krys1888)