Charlie Nicholas has used his newspaper this morning to write off the Celtic captain Scott Brown as a debate gets underway as to whether Neil Lennon is correct in suggesting playing the tried-and-tested players on Sunday in the Scottish Cup Final against Hearts or instead opt to start the ‘Young Guns’ who grabbed their opportunity with both hands in the last two games and eased the considerable pressure on their manager as a consequence.
It’s easy for us or indeed Charlie Nicholas to have an opinion on this and you’d think that if the support was asked the majority would opt for the ‘Young Guns’ rather than the ‘hard core’ who have frankly been off the boil this season, to say the least.
But if you are the Celtic manager there’s much more to consider. Several players had options to move in the summer in deals that could apparently have trebled their wages but Neil Lennon persuaded them to stay for one more season as Celtic’s focus was very much on The Ten. That kind of commitment might mean that these players are due a place in the Scottish Cup Final at the weekend.
And Scott Brown has been Neil Lennon’s biggest ally in the dressing room and at the club this season so not to play his captain would be seen as something of a betrayal in that relationship’s dynamic which you would imagine Lennon sees continuing via offering Brown a coaching role at the club when he hangs up his boots.
Bringing Ryan Christie into the side at the expense of Jeremie Frimpong seems like the simplest call. Odsonne Edouard, who seems to prefer the big games, will also get the nod, despite having his most disappointing season in a Celtic shirt. However a spark could occur at any moment and we all know that he’s the most talented player in Scottish football. Curiously he did seem to show up in the San Siro and now AC Milan are being credited with an interest in the French Under 21 goalscorer, who almost certainly will leave Celtic in 2021, perhaps as early as January, depending on results.
Callum McGregor remained in the side amid the recent changes, taking over the armband from Scott Brown and will start as will Kristoffer Ajer, preferably at right back where he has proved to be a solution to the weakest out-field position in the side this season – a matter that needs to be addressed in January.
In goals Conor Hazard is one of two ‘Young Guns’ likely to get the nod as neither Barkas or Bain have shown themselves to be particularly trustworthy for the Celtic defence or indeed the support. The club’s decision to open up contract extension talks with the young Irish goalkeeper speaks volumes.
Greg Taylor has a chance of starting at left back ahead of loan signing Diego Laxalt, who missed out at the weekend after suffering bruising on his foot against Lille. Taylor’s win-rate in a Celtic jersey this season is better than most and he was very solid against Kilmarnock.
Duffy and Jullien you would imagine will be the the central defenders.
In the middle of the park expect Brown and McGregor – with Soro coming off the bench and ahead of them Christie, ‘Young Gun’ David Turnbull (edging out Tom Rogic) and Elyounoussi with Odsonne Edouard up front.
So thinking about it, the biggest uncertainty is at left back where it is a 50/50 call, with Lennon maybe likely to opt for Laxalt if he is looking at signing him on a permanent contract.
So our predicted Celtic side to face Hearts in the 2019/20 Scottish Cup Final would be as follows:
Ajer, Duffy, Jullien, Laxalt
Christie, Turnbull, Elyounoussi
Nicholas though doesn’t agree with playing Scott Brown, suggesting in Daily Express today that the veteran Celtic skipper’s legs have gone.
“Scott Brown should not start for Celtic in this Sunday’s Scottish Cup final against Hearts at Hampden,” Nicholas writes in his Daily Express column this morning. “Last weekend Neil Lennon said the ‘hard core’ players who got them to the national stadium deserved the chance to take the last step on the journey.
“Yet, there’s no getting away from the fact that in the last two games the manager has been handsomely rewarded by the players he had never really given a chance to until last week. We are talking about midfield duo David Turnbull and Ismaila Soro and keeper Conor Hazard.
“Now Lennon is considering recalling captain Brown, who has been kept on the bench for Celtic’s last two games, which they won in his absence. Lenny has to clear his head and take the blinkers off. As things stand, he is only surviving on a short-term basis.
“I know the quadruple treble from last season can be won this weekend but he is still fighting to remain in a job. Celtic must lift the Scottish Cup if Lenny is to have any chance of quelling the clamour for his removal from his club’s own fans.
“I could understand the logic behind Ryan Christie coming back into the starting line-up, but not Brown. His legs aren’t there and he is not playing like he used to. Brown is no longer a controlling presence in midfield and isn’t as influential to the team as he once was.
“In the big games over the past 18 months, it has been more about Brown’s nuisance value and not what he actually does on the ball. He had become a spoiler but that role was diminished when Lenny moved away from Brendan Rodgers’ preferred style of play and now it carries little weight or relevance.
“Brown is still a big personality in the dressing room but Celtic are not going to miss the 35-year-old if he doesn’t play. I understand that Brown remains the figurehead for Celtic and if they win the final then, rightly, he should lift the trophy, but the manager has to go with the players in form, namely Mohamed Elyounoussi, Turnbull, Soro and Hazard.
“They have done everything that’s been asked of them. Would it be a risk too far to play them at Hampden? Not at all. By freshening up the side, Lennon has managed to get away from the usual suspects and pick players who will play without fear.
“Soro,Turnbull and Hazard have given Celtic a lift and real energy to spark them back into life.”
Unusually Nicholas is predicting a Celtic win on Sunday over Robbie Neilson’s Hearts side who will try to learn from the recent tactical displays by both Ross County and St Johnstone to frustrate Celtic then hit then where they have proved to be vulnerable this season.
“Hearts are in good form in the Championship but I can’t see anything other than a Hoops win. Robbie Neilson will send out his players to make it a physical contest but I expect Celtic to eventually push past them.
“But let’s put it this way – if Celtic thought going out of the Betfred Cup to Ross County was bad, the backlash from losing the Scottish Cup Final to Hearts at Hampden would be much worse.”