To look forward to Saturday’s Betfred Cup clash at Hampden, we look at the players most likely to impact the final result.
Scott Brown (Celtic)
In their last domestic game, Dundee held the champions to 55 per cent possession. That may not sound too impressive, Celtic still won the battle after all, but it was the lowest they’d managed in domestic football this season. This follows on from the 59 per cent enjoyed the last time they faced Hibs, which again was low by their standards this campaign. The common denominator in both games was the absence of captain Scott Brown, who was nursing a hamstring injury. Brown plays such a key role both on and off the ball in the midfield. He dictates the tempo and ensures Celtic always retain possession, while hunting down and retrieving the ball when the opposition have it. Then there are his leadership skills, as he successfully lights a fire under his younger team-mates. In a big match such as this one, his performance will be of the utmost importance.
Leigh Griffiths (Celtic)
The striker isn’t quite on top form at the moment, scoring just once in his last eight domestic games. He passed up a couple of excellent chances in the recent win over Dundee, and does seem to be pressing a little too much in front of goal since the return of Moussa Dembele through injury. However, as Hibs fans well know, he’s always capable of finding the back of the net from anywhere inside 25 yards. The Hibs defence has been guilty of conceding some sloppy goals this season, and that cannot be the case at Hampden on Saturday.
Dylan McGeouch (Hibs)
The former Celtic midfielder may not be an obvious source of goals or assists (although he did find the back of the net on his last trip to Hampden) but he’s incredibly valuable to his side and they’ll need to get a top performance out of him if they’re able to win this game. McGeouch’s biggest contribution lies in his ability to retain possession. It sounds simple enough, but there’s nothing easy about taking the ball in crowded areas, moving away from danger, and finding the appropriate pass to keep the attack moving forward. There’s no tougher team to do that against than Celtic, but if he can impose his game then Hibs have a chance of competing in the centre of the park.
John McGinn (Hibs)
A big game player. McGinn is at his best when the structure of a match breaks down and things start to open up as the pace quickens - what NFL commentators might describe as “sandlot football”. A League Cup semi-final on the Hampden Park turf should provide him with the opportunity to show such skills. What he’ll also have to do is stay focused at the other end, as Hibs will surely be pushed into defending for long periods. And when he does have the chance to drive his team forward from deep, he’ll know he can’t be wasteful with the final pass. It’s sound advice for anyone facing Celtic, but with McGinn we already know he’s up to the test, having starred against Saturday’s opponents in the 2-2 league draw at Parkhead on the final weekend of September.
Scott Sinclair (Celtic)
Perhaps even more so than Griffiths or Dembele, Celtic are at their ruthless, punishing best when Sinclair is on song. Whether it’s picking the ball up from deep and driving at terrified opposing defenders, or lashing it into the back of the net in the blink of an eye, Sinclair is such a destructive force when he’s at his peak. Another who didn’t quite hit his usual heights against Dundee, but 10 goals in 18 appearances in all competitions this term (to go with 25 from 50 last season) tells you all you need to know about his threat.
Anthony Stokes (Hibs)
One of Hibs’ biggest problems this season has been their inability to put teams away while playing on top, as Stokes represents their only real consistent goal threat with Simon Murray failing to find the back of the net since the second week in August. That’s problematic enough when you’re facing Dundee and St Johnstone, but they can’t afford to be wasteful in front of goal when facing this all-conquering Celtic side. Stokes was in inspired form the last time he played at Hampden, as his two goals and man-of-the-match performance helped Hibs defeat Rangers in the Scottish Cup final. He’ll need to be similarly engaged this time around.