Craig Fowler looks back at the winners and losers from the last 16 of the BetFred Cup.
It must have felt like a massive bubble had burst and rebounded right into their collective faces, much like a 12-year-old girl chewing on Hubba Bubba, when Celtic suffered one of the worst European defeats in their history, going down 1-0 to Lincoln Red Imps in Brendan Rodgers first match. The new boss was supposed to signal a changing of the times where ambition from the club was going to meet that of supporters. Instead, in the first game, they were forced to endure a 90 minutes that seemed as if it came right out of the Ronny Deila playbook.
Since then, however, things have gotten a lot better and last night’s hammering of Motherwell was the realisation of expectations they had when Rodgers’s hiring was announced. Celtic weren’t only going to win the title, they were going to do it with real style and panache. It looked doubtful after that fateful evening in Gibraltar, but now it seems almost a certainty after two wins from their first two games against top six sides from last season. Though they only sneaked past Hearts at Tynecastle, they absolutely annihilated Motherwell, and did so without top goalscorer Leigh Griffiths.
Cammy Smith (Dundee United)
The most popular question in Aberdeen last season was “why didn’t he bring on Cammy Smith sooner?” Manager Derek McInnes had fostered a reputation as someone lacking flexibility in his approach, and the reticence in using some of the young attacking players off the bench was viewed as evidence of such a charge. Smith had only shown glimpses of being the hottest prospect at the club, but it was enough to get the weight of the support behind him. Although, taking a step back, it seemed evident McInnes either didn’t rate the 20-year-old, or didn’t view him as ready for a regular berth in the side. Therefore, it was unsurprising when McInnes addressed his lack of options off the bench by signing three strikers, that Smith was put out on loan for first time in his career.
It maybe won’t mean much to his long term prospects, but netting a hat-trick in 30 minutes against a Premiership side in Partick Thistle will do wonders for his confidence and if he does a sterling job throughout this campaign with Dundee United, he could sway McInnes’s opinion of him once he’s back at Pittodrie.
Niko Kranjcar (Rangers)
It was a cup game against an opponent two leagues below Rangers - a fact some need to remember as they clamour over each other to deride anyone who dared to question the Kranjcar signing following his below par league debut against Hamilton - but the match-winning performance will still do the Croatian a world of good. Kranjcar scored one and made two as Rangers steamrolled Peterhead. Even taking quality of opponent into account, it’ll be good for his confidence, which will make him feel better about his move to Ibrox in a number of ways. He’ll feel more comfortable playing in Mark Warburton’s system, playing alongside his team-mates, playing in front of the home crowd and about playing in Scotland in general.
Jai Quitongo (St Mirren)
His dad is Jose Quitongo, so Jai is a winner every day. However, he enjoyed an extra special evening on Tuesday, leaving his former employers with a beamer after knocking them out of the League Cup at their own ground. The 18-year-old was excellent throughout the match and netted the winning goal after Ross Forbes had cancelled out Dougie Imrie’s opener.
As for Hamilton, they can’t seem to make up their mind as to what they are. Performances like the one at Ibrox the previous Saturday suggested they were a hard-working, organised bunch who could defy expectations of relegation from the top flight by being greater than the sum of their parts. Then they go and lose (deservedly) at home to a middle-of-the-road Championship side.
Aaron Doran (Inverness CT)
Even though his side crashed out of the competition to League One Alloa, it was heartening to see Doran return to a football field for the first time in a year. The Irishman injured his knee at the very start of last season and it kept him out for the entire league campaign. There was a time, under Terry Butcher, when Doran was one of the best attacking players in the country, though Inverness will settle for him adding competition for places in the first-team squad.
Aberdeen’s cup drought
The Dons have lost their last four domestic cup matches, going out at the first attempt in the Scottish Cup twice, the League Cup once, and losing a semi-final of the same competition. In fairness, they faced difficult opponents in each of those four matches, three of which came away from home to Dundee, Hibs and Hearts, and a clash against Dundee United (pre-Celtic ramsacking their squad) at Hampden. So having been handed an easier tie against Ayr, McInnes and his men took full advantage to book themselves a place in the quarter-finals, even if the narrow 2-1 victory was tougher than they would have hoped.
Robbie Neilson (Hearts)
Lost amid the pile of grievances Hearts fans have with the club’s management, somewhere near the bottom - alongside an inability to defeat Hibs and the audacity not to treat troublesome fans with a boys-will-be-boys attitude - is the cut-throat nature with regards to making fringe players surplus to requirements. Eyebrows were raised when the likes of James Keatings, Adam Eckersley, Dale Carrick and Kevin McHattie were told to scram. Those grumbles could be written off as nonsensical ramblings as none of those players improved their career fortunes after leaving the club. Even if their replacements didn’t live up to the initial hype - we’re looking at you Juwon - releasing them didn’t come back to bite Hearts. Until yesterday.
Danny Swanson already had two goals, including a stunning opener, when he swung in the corner from which fellow Hearts reject Brad McKay headed his old side out of the League Cup. Not only was it sweet revenge, it could scarcely have come at a worse time for the perpetrator. Robbie Neilson will lose his fourth consecutive game as Hearts manager if his side are unable to get anything from a difficult away trip to Aberdeen, who’ll be desperate themselves for three points after failing to defeat St Johnstone in the opening league game.
The club will likely stick with the under fire manager even if Hearts crumble in Pittodrie, but anything less than a battling draw may be the final straw for a number of supporters.
A win at Falkirk, combined with Dundee United’s inability to defeat Queen of the South at home, left Hibs fans with a strange feeling of comfort with regards to their place in this world. The Scottish Cup is in the trophy cabinet and this was undoubtedly going to be the season where they stormed unimpeded to the Championship crown and a return to the top flight. It was so obvious. Why even bother with playing the season?
Unfortunately the sense of security lasted only until Tuesday’s exit to the very same side that undermined Dundee United’s title-winning credentials. Hibs put out a full strength side (of the players available), controlled the match in the first half, held a 1-0 lead, and still lost by three goals to one. Neil Lennon was quick to criticise his players but fans can’t help but worry. They had expected a greater influx of players over the summer months, with only Grant Holt and goalkeepers Ofir Marciano and Ross Laidlaw signing on for a spell in Leith. There are other holes in the squad and they’d feel a lot better about life once again if Lennon could fill them before the end of the transfer window.