And so it begins, and what a start we have. Hearts at Tynecastle under the lights. If this was a game with a full away allocation and a sold-out home end this would be one of the highlights of the football calendar at any point of the season. When it’s the first game of the season, a game where both sides want nothing more than to get out the blocks quickly and bring home the first victory of a 38-game season, it adds even more of an edge than a normal visit to Gorgie.
Except this one will be a little strange. Tynecastle will be less than a quarter full and there will be no Celts – at least not officially – in attendance to give the Bhoys a cheer. The other oddity about this particular tie is whilst every other club kicks off early or at 3pm the Celtic players and supporters will have to wait patiently for that 8pm kick off to come around. Somehow, I think that wait may be a little nerve racking, even torturous.
Celtic will be looking to get off to a positive start, under new management and on the back of a disappointing but not unexpected Champions League defeat on Wednesday night, there is a sense of uncertainty around the club but all of that can soon be consigned to history if Celtic start the season with a win against a club second only to theRangers in the rivalry stakes.
Ange Postecoglou and indeed the support have already received a shot in the arm with the news both new Swedish International defender Carl Starfelt, and by the time you are reading this, Japanese striker Kyogo Furuhashi are out of quarantine and at different stages of readiness.
Starfelt, who came across as a man delighted to be playing for Celtic at yesterday’s Fan Media press conference, has had one day training with his teammates and has already made himself available for selection.
On two fronts that is positive, the first is just how positive it was to hear a player who simply wants to play for Celtic and secondly if selected, and I’ve a feeling he will be, he’ll bring experience, organisation and defensive nous to a young Celtic backline who have performed admirably in pre-season and in the recent European qualifier but who have a naivety about them that is reflected in their relative inexperience.
Ange Postecoglou would surely prefer to slowly blood the likes of Dane Murray and Anthony Ralston into first team football, Ralston has been out the picture for some time and Murray has been thrust in whereby a gradual introduction would have been ideal. Meanwhile whilst Stephen Welsh has the advantage of being a regular starter towards the end of last season, he is in no position to guide a youngster through the introduction to Celtic first team football when he is still getting to grips with it himself. As such expect Murray to drop out, Starfelt to come in and don’t be surprised if a returning Nir Bitton allows Welsh himself to step out the firing line and take a breather in what has been an intensive start to the season.
The possibility of the wonderfully talented Kyogo Furuhashi making the match day squad will also give everyone a lift on the field and also those watching from home.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see Furuhashi make the bench tonight. He won’t have lost much fitness from his time in quarantine and he’d been well up to speed in the J-League prior to signing on, indeed his 15 goals in 21 games for Vissel Kobe would be enough to concern Hearts tonight and boost our own squad’s confidence.
As such even a place on the side-lines will have Hearts boss Robbie Neilson second guessing Celtic’s approach to the game and a certain Scotty Sinclair made an immediate impression at this ground in an opening league fixture some five years ago, perhaps there is scope for a similar late cameo from Kyogo Furuhashi tonight.
There is likely to be little further surprises to Celtic’s line-up tonight. Kiel Abada may find he drops out and James Forrest who managed an hour of football on Wednesday night comes in for the experience he brings to the occasion. That is no slight on Abada who has impressed in flashes so far but some knowledge of the surroundings at such a tough venue to visit wouldn’t go amiss and James Forrest, whose absence was keenly felt last season, knows his way around this environment.
In goal Scott Bain’s superior footwork may edge the battle for a place between the sticks, but when it comes to handling the ball Postecoglou isn’t exactly spoilt for choice between Bain and Barkas. Although there won’t be a new face signed in time for tonight Celtic need to find someone who is head and shoulders above the current goalkeeping choices and it looks like that may be resolved by the time Dundee visit Celtic Park next weekend.
Tactically Celtic made an interesting change on Wednesday night in Denmark as for the most part Ange Postecoglou dispensed with inverted full backs. Given both Tony Ralston and Greg Taylor had struggled to get to grips with that approach it made sense, and it drew improvement and confidence from Ralston in particular.
However, it forced Celtic to have to narrow the attacking wide players a little as the trade-off. In terms of chance creation that probably impacted Celtic a little and the sooner the recruitment of full backs is sorted out the quicker Postecoglou’s philosophy can be implemented.
Although it was good to see Celtic’s new manager recognise the deficiencies and correct it for Wednesday, he shouldn’t have to compromise due to a lack of suitable players to implement his system. From a recruitment perspective that issue needs fixed and quickly.
From middle to front Celtic should have the movement to disrupt a Hearts side light on numbers in defence. The experience of Starfelt and Bitton alongside the dispensing with inverted full backs should add some solidity to a Celtic backline who will have to keep an eye on Liam Boyce but beyond that Hearts have very limited attacking options. Midfield is their strength but they are lacking in creativity and Celtic, if they can move the ball at pace, have more than enough to play around them. Anything slower than that, or show any hesitancy, and it could make for a physical battle and that is something Celtic need to avoid.
I’d expect Celtic to line up with a 4-3-3 with Bain in goals and a back four of Ralston, Bitton, Starfelt and Taylor a midfield of Soro, McGregor and Turnbull with Ryan Christie off the left, Forrest on the right and Odsonne Edouard continuing up front.
The start of the season is always a fresh start and a game at Tynecastle is more than enough to whet the appetite. Celtic may have to be patient tonight as Hearts look to soak up the pressure, hit on the counter, look to win free kicks and use their height advantage from set piece deliveries.
From open play however the Celts have more than enough to emerge from Edinburgh with a confidence boosting win. I’d take Celtic to win by a couple tonight. Let’s hope the only thing torturous about the opening day fixture is the wait for that 8pm Kick off.
Celtic demolishing Hearts 5-0 in the Rodgers era. That side played with such verve and pace when on their game…. pic.twitter.com/PQLYQfOJon
— Lisbon Lion (@tirnaog_09) July 31, 2021