There are few things in football as exciting as a sold-out Hampden Park witnessing two of Scotland’s biggest clubs going toe-to-toe in a one-off cup tie. That’s the treat that awaits us this Saturday when Scottish League Cup holders Celtic continue their defence of the trophy against a resurgent Hibernian in the semi-final of competition.
The occasion itself is enough to capture the imagination, but the recent meeting between the two sides in the Scottish Premiership adds a further context that hints this match could be one for the ages. Hibs visited Celtic Park just before the recent international break and battled to a 2-2 draw, with both sides leading the game at various points. It was a thrilling encounter and shows that Neil Lennon’s side know exactly how to get at Brendan Rodgers’ Invincibles.
Beyond that, there are many interesting aspects to this semi-final, a story-line that runs through the middle of this fixture from 2010 through to today. The resulting conclusion is that Hibs could give the reigning League Cup winners one of the toughest tests of their entire domestic season. Lennon has a unique insight into how to exploit a Celtic weakness and can call upon a mixed history at Hampden to inspire his side to victory.
The irony of the Hibs manager plotting how to overcome his old side at Hampden is that when boss of Celtic, he had a decidedly difficult time getting results in both cup competitions at the national stadium.
From his time as caretaker manager when he oversaw a grim defeat at the hands of Ross County in the Scottish Cup, fixtures at Hampden became something that Hoops supporters would dread, and for good reason. In four seasons, Celtic lost at Hampden in the semi-finals or finals of competitions five times against the likes of Kilmarnock, St Mirren and rivals Rangers.
There was something about the one-off nature of these games at Hampden that gave inspiration to the underdogs, something that gave them a boost, a rare motivation. In the wake of these Hampden woes for Celtic, Neil Lennon will surely know how to tap into that this Saturday.
Despite defeat in last season’s League Cup semi-final, another Lennon defeat, the national stadium has become a place of comfort for Hibernian and their supporters. When they won the Scottish Cup after a wait of over 100 years in 2016, it became the scene of the greatest achievement in the club’s recent history, a victory that has been the springboard for their resurgence back into the Scottish Premiership. Saturday’s match will be an occasion they relish, believing they can be the side to finally end Celtic’s 59-match domestic unbeaten run.
The fact Celtic are playing Hibs so soon after a visit to Bayern Munich in the UEFA Champions League has been a big talking point over the last week.
Brendan Rodgers himself noted it as a problem for his side. He said he was ‘very surprised that our semi-final is on the Saturday and we weren’t given that extra day’, and that ‘we’re certainly not helped by it.’
That may sound like the usual pre-match complaining managers partake in to play mind games and take pressure off their team, but it was in fact a view shared by Neil Lennon himself, who knows better than anyone about the difficulty of balancing domestic football with matches in Europe’s premier competition.
‘Any advantage we can take from it, we will have to,’ the Easter Road manager said. ‘They’ll be playing in Munich on the Wednesday night and then only have maybe a day and a half to recover. We are going to try and make the most of that. The mental and physical approach… it’s really difficult… subconsciously with players you are up there with the Champions League and then you dip after the game.’
Lennon of course guided Celtic through two group stages campaigns in the competition, so will be acutely aware of areas or even players that could be targeted and exploited on Saturday, some of whom also played under him at Celtic Park. That kind of insider knowledge could be the difference this weekend.
Mentality hasn’t been a problem for Rodgers’ side so far; he’s instilled a steely determination in his squad to get results even during intense schedules. However, up against a manager who understands the hardships, perhaps that will be a different story.
Don’t forget, Hibs’ recent draw came after an energy sapping trip to Anderlecht, and the only other time the Hoops dropped points after a European fixture this season followed another away trip to Astana. It’s unlikely a coincidence that levels have dropped after a week of travel and this Saturday, that could come to the fore again.
At the very least we’re promised a spectacle and all eyes are on whether Celtic’s unbeaten run will come to an end at the hands of a person who was once the beating heart of the club.