Celtic take on Hearts at Hampden in the Scottish Cup Semi-final with the Jambos in decent form. They’ve only lost one of the past seven matches, most recently defeating SPL strugglers Dunfermline 2-1 at East End Park.
Paulo Sergio will be concerned by the 9 players currently walking the so-called “suspension tight-rope” – not that that will make a difference to the way his side play their football.
Hearts have truly settled on the in vogue, continental 4-2-3-1 formation, with Rudi Skacel typically playing just off the striker.
Hearts’ left-hand side has generally been the most consistent – with Marius Zaliukas, Danny Grainger, Ian Black and Andrew Driver racking up regular gametime together.
While Driver has traditionally been considered the ‘jewel in the crown’, he’s still struggling to reegain the form that caught the eye of bigger sides in the earlier part of his Hearts career. Over the previous two season’s he hasn’t managed more than 14 appearances – but this year looks to be a step forward with the semi-final being his 18th appearance this term.
Hearts’ real star this season has been Ian Black, playing in a “Scott Brown” type role. Primarily a destroyer, but equally expected to rile the opposition, and to a lesser extent create chances. Just watch out for those dirty tackles.
The right hand-side will be more unpredictable, Jamie Hamill has been ruled out, which means Scott Robinson may be shifted central. Ideally, Sergio would prefer a return for Adrian Mrowiec to add more bite and experience to the midfield – though he’s only just returning from injury.
The other option here is Mehdi Taouil who is also returning from injury. But his role his more creative; less of a defensive force, which therefore hinders his chances. On the right David Templeton is back in contention, but again returning from injury may not quite be ready.
And the fourth (well, fifth recovering injuree after Stephen Elliott), may be the most crucial of all. Former Celt Craig Beattie is extremely adept in the lone striker role having excelled in the 3 matches played (scoring two goals) before (rather predictably) succumbing to injury. He’s a more rounded and more experienced player than Elliott or Gary Glen (who is most likely to lead the line) and also has a knack for scoring vital goals.
Neil Lennon lined up in a surprising (though previously utilised) formation in Celtic’s last match. He went 4-1-2-1-2 verging on an extremely narrow 4-3-3 to combat Kilmarnock’s unique 4-3-2-1.
The only other times that Lennon has utilised such a centrally dependent system had been against sides fielding 3-5-2 formations – simply to match the bodies in central midfield and have belief in the front 3.
It’s an exciting system, especially useful in getting Kris Commons into good positions between the lines – in the number 10 role that Lennon is so keen to embrace.
However – against Hearts expected 4-2-3-1, Lennon’s 4-3-3 is hugely unanticipated. The sole reason being that Celtic’s full-backs will be put in a 2 vs 1 situation in almost every attack. The few teams in world football who use this formation get around the problem by asking a lot of the “sides” of the diamond – requiring them to “shuttle” wide and support their respective full-backs.
Likely starting formation
It will more than likely be a return to the lop-sided 4-4-2, with Commons used as the most advanced midfield. The size and depth of the squad, along with the return of key players from injury, however, makes predicting a lineup more difficult.
Lennon is generally quite lenient on those returning from injury, and likes to keep a winning squad playing – therefore it may simply be a case of shuffling the players who faced Kilmarnock.
Victor Wanyama’s return from suspension puts pressure on Ki – especially when faced against a side historically aggressive and robust.
Elsewhere, with the ‘Strooper’ combination up front misfiring of late, Anthony Stokes’ best chances of starting will be in place of Gary Hooper.
Arguably Celtic’s best centre-back (since his return from injury mid-season) Thomas Rogne will be looking to usurp Glen Loovens, and what with Charlie Mulgrew’s exceptional performance at left-back last time out, it’s unlikely he will be replaced by the toiling Emilio Izaguirre.
The most likely place of change will be at right-back – where Lennon has historically rotated heavily. Adam Matthews is the most consistent performer, and while Lennon admires Cha Du Ri’s pace and directness, the Korean may have made one mistake too many of late. Mikael Lustig will therefore be hopeful of being granted a start.
Lennon has already identified Rudi Skacel and Craig Beattie as the dangermen, but there are other, broader worries. The first is the clear numerical deficit in midfield – particularly if Celtic lineup in a flatter shape. Skacel will be spare between the lines, and with his penchant for the spectacular ranged effort, cannot be given room on the edge of the box.
The other main danger is from set-plays (albeit this works both ways, with Celtic’s wealth of quality delivery options). But Hearts have been scoring a lot of goals from set-play crosses – and this is thanks to decent set-piece takers and a tall, strong group of players.
A composed and confident back-line can deal with any such set-piece – so the onus will be on organisation and leadership at the back.
A final word on Celtic: with Georgios Samaras at the top of the game and Kris Commons ever-so-slowly returning to last season’s best, it will be a case of getting the ball down and playing the bright, ambitious attacking football that’s been the source of this season’s best performances.