Celtic v Hearts – ‘The Price of Utter Domination,’ Stein Reigned Supreme

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Saturday’s Scottish Cup final between Celtic and Hearts will be a landmark occasion regardless of the outcome. Seeing as the team has been rewriting history, mostly in domestic competitions, during the past three seasons it’s not surprising the Hoops go into the Hampden clash as strong favourites.

As we all know, Celtic have lifted the Scottish Cup more than any other club, winners on 38 occasions, but it is surprising the club has never claimed it three times in a row. Success against Craig Levein’s side will equal the post-war achievements of Rangers, 1948 to 1950 and ’62 to 64’, and Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen team in 1982,’83 and ’84. In the early years of the competition Queen’s Park (twice), Vale of Leven, and Rangers between the wars, all won the trophy in three successive years.

Celtic enter the final on a run of 26 successive victories in the League Cup and Scottish Cup, beating the previous record of 24 earlier in the competition. So, the form is good.

Two seasons ago Brendan Rodgers broke new ground when Celtic won an invincible Treble. In his second year in the job another Treble was delivered to match the accomplishments of Paris Saint Germain in France and The New Saints in Wales, who achieved the feat in the same years 2015 and 2016.

Both narrowly missed out on a third successive Treble, winning two of the three available trophies in 2017. By the time of his hasty departure from Celtic Park in February, Rodgers had guided the side to another League Cup triumph and on course for an eighth Scottish Premiership in eight years.

Fortunately for the club the man who started the sequence of titles, Neil Lennon, was available to come in at short notice to ensure the team stayed top of the League until the end of the season. So now all that remains is a win at Hampden for Celtic to become the first European club to attain a treble Treble.

Despite those impressive statistics there is growing consensus among fans of Scottish football that Celtic regressed this season. There is similar thinking in the media, although many people covering our game prefer to describe the situation as; “the gap closing” despite the winning margin in the final Scottish Premiership standings being the same nine points as this time last year. Celtic have lost one additional game this season but also won three more matches and also picking up five extra points. They scored four more goals, conceded five fewer goals and played out four fewer draws. So statistically that’s a better season.

While everyone accepts it is virtually impossible to follow an invincible Treble, Celtic’s resolve was impressive in stretching that unbeaten domestic run to 69 games before losing 4-0 to Hearts in December 2017. Further defeats in the league to Kilmarnock, Hibernian and Aberdeen meant little in terms of the title race and all three trophies were retained. As already stated, this season has delivered five Scottish Premiership defeats with Hearts, Killie and Hibs again beating Celtic, while Rangers defeated the champions twice at Ibrox. Yet the perception is, Celtic have lost their spark.

Celtic’s inconsistent form in the earlier part of this season can be explained by an outbreak of self-harming. On the eve of the AEK Athens match Rodgers decided to express frustration at missing out on his transfer targets, Dedryck Boyata refused to travel to Greece for the second-leg, and Moussa Dembele insisted he was not staying at Celtic hours before the transfer deadline, it all gave an impression of a club in chaos. Then there was the hangover of missing out on the Champions League. Celtic labored away from home against teams who had worked out how to frustrate the champions. Hearts were the only team to take advantage of the poor start and they stayed at the top of the League until November.

Rodgers made many good decisions at Celtic, but luck rather than judgment took the team out of the early season slump. For the League Cup semi-final at Murryfield in October, he decided to match Hearts physically with Kouassi Eboue and Olivier Ntcham in midfield. While it worked in ensuring Celtic did not get bullied, both teams were lacking creativity. When Eboue and Ntcham sustained injuries Scott Sinclair and Ryan Christie terrorised Hearts and a 3-0 defeat was kind on them.

Christie turned Celtic’s season around, and he was clearly not in Rodgers’ plans. A manager who lamented missing out on John McGinn hadn’t been using a player with similar attributes already at his disposal. Christie galvanised Celtic until the end of the year, and the team was producing their best football for months, retaining the League Cup, qualifying for the Europa League knockout stage and returning to the top of the table where they stayed until the end of the campaign.

The mettle has been impressive as Ntcham, Scott Brown, Tom Rogic, Callum McGregor, James Forrest, Jozo Simunovic, Odsonne Edouard, Mikael Lustig and Kieran Tierney have all missed chunks of the season with injuries.

That injury at Murrayfield ruled out Eboue for the rest of the campaign, Leigh Griffiths saw his season end in December, Boyata played his final game in March and Christie, who was twice sidelined with injuries after becoming an integral part of the team, was ruled out for the remainder of the season in April. Sympathy will be limited from the other clubs in Scotland as Celtic have the best resources and the most talented squad in the country, but all of their rivals would be happy to have such problems. And this domestic dominance is perhaps why Celtic laboured at times during the season. Also, the success is rewarded by European football for the club and international recognition for players.

Celtic have obviously been involved in more competitive games than their Scottish rivals in securing all eight domestic trophies available in the last three years.

Saturday will be fixture 183, including European matches. Their nearest challengers in this period, Aberdeen, have played 31 games fewer while Rangers, who finished second this season, have played 156 matches, three more than the Dons. Hearts will arrive at Hampden having played 40 games fewer than Celtic, which is an entire League campaign.

While the international schedule offers a two-week break a few times during the season for the vast majority of Scottish Premiership players, it means more matches for those representing their countries. And looking at individual appearances in the last three years going into the Scottish Cup final, Forrest has played 174 games, McGregor (170), Brown (165), Lustig and Sinclair (159), while Tierney will make his 147th appearance at Hampden. From those six, only Sinclair has not won any international caps during this period.

Continuing down the list of most used players, uncapped Rangers defender James Tavernier (147) is ahead of departing Aberdeen captain Graeme Shinnie (144), while his Scotland team-mate Craig Gordon, who hasn’t played for Celtic this year, is on 142 games.

Motherwell defender Tom Aldred has made 137 appearances, Aberdeen pair Joe Lewis (136) and Andrew Considine (132) are split by Stephen O’Donnell of Kilmarnock (133) and Hearts skipper Berra, who will make that figure on Saturday when the Scotland international leads out the Edinburgh side at the National Stadium. The next highest appearances for Rangers is the uncapped Daniel Candeias (126) and Alfredo Morelos (123), who has played three times for Columbia, but both are behind Celtic and Australia midfielder Rogic (127).

In Celtic’s invincible season, Rogic played his last match on 22 June in the Confederations Cup as his club-mates where returning from their summer break. Last season the Aussie was playing in the World Cup until 26 June. Lustig and Boyata were also involved in that tournament until July.

Even without qualifying, some of the Scotland internationals above have played into June in the past two years. In short, several Celtic players appear to be suffering from fatigue, but the ability to raise their performances in crucial games or grind out results is certainly impressive.

People who think the dip occurred when the management team changed, seem to forget evident sluggishness throughout the season, while the usual suspects in the media are peddling the fantasy that Celtic stumbled over the line. I don’t think fans have really considered the fatigue factor, it’s easy to forget a Scottish club once shamelessly asked for an extension to the season based on a busy 10 months, and were embarrassingly accommodated by the ruling body.

Embarrassment is never far away from the people running Scottish football. While I was checking some Scottish Cup stats on past winners of the Scottish Cup on the official SFA website, the first sentence read: “There have been 25 winners of the Scottish Cup. Celtic have won the trophy most often with 37 victories.”

That mistake has been up there for two years.

Stein Reigned Supreme

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