Aberdeen take to the Hampden turf on Saturday afternoon looking to repeat the feat they achieved in 1990 when they lifted the Scottish Cup at the expense of Billy McNeill’s Celtic. If Derek McInnes’ side are to overcome this season’s Invincibles, it will require similarly strong performances collectively and individually, and an effective nullification of a team that has been revitalised under the guidance of Brendan Rodgers.
We take a look at the six most important players as the teams face off for the sixth time this campaign.
Stuart Armstrong (Celtic)
The complete midfielder, Armstrong’s influence in the Celtic team may have preceded the reign of Rodgers but the former Dundee United man has transitioned from a player flirting with quality to a vital cog in the team’s engine room. Increasing his goal count from last season’s four to 16 in the current campaign, Armstrong has benefited from a freedom to express himself in a side focused on slick movement of the ball at pace. His strength and athleticism, combined with ability to force the issue and shoot from distance in the final third, resulted in an overdue Scotland debut against Slovenia in March and has provoked calls for Gordon Strachan to sculpt the national side around him.
Armstrong’s ability to dictate the tempo of football matches has been no more evident than in Celtic’s League Cup final triumph in November, when he was at the heart of his side’s complete dominance of possession in midfield. Simply put, he makes the champions tick and cannot be afforded the space and time to make full use of his footballing intelligence. Otherwise, Aberdeen will struggle to put their foot on the ball.
Leigh Griffiths (Celtic)
The striker will likely get the nod to lead the line with Moussa Dembele only just back after recovering from a hamstring injury. The French player’s blistering debut season in Scotland has led to the sidelining of Griffiths but that hasn’t prevented him from playing a prominent role in Rodgers’ team. With 18 goals to his name this campaign, two in defeats of Aberdeen, Griffiths’ qualities are obvious. He is a natural goalscorer, adept on either foot, and unlike some of the game’s finest poachers, he can also carry the ball and impact proceedings from deeper positions.
In the 3-1 victory at Pittodrie, Mark Reynolds and Ash Taylor struggled to get to grips with Griffiths’ direct running in the early stages of the encounter and it proved costly as he evaded the attention of both players to fire in his side’s third on the night. Aberdeen will know that they cannot repeat past mistakes if they are to give themselves a chance.
Jonny Hayes (Aberdeen)
The winger, the solitary non-Celtic PFA Scotland Player of the Year nominee, leads the Scottish Premiership assists chart with 15 throughout the course of the season. His frightening pace and unrivalled work ethic make his contributions to the Aberdeen side invaluable. Not to mention, Hayes enjoys playing against Celtic, having scored no less than three crackers against the champions in recent years.
The manner in which the Irishman goes about his craft means that Scottish football fans tend to cast envious glances in his direction. He is modest in that he tracks back to support his fullback, epitomised by a superb last-ditch tackle to prevent Scott Sinclair earlier this month. However, undoubtedly he is known for his ability to put opposition defenders under pressure with unpredictably menacing bursts forward. He will operate on either flank throughout the course of the 90, rotating with Niall McGinn at will, meaning that both Kieran Tierney and Mikael Lustig will have the thankless task of trying to keep him quiet.
Kenny McLean (Aberdeen)
McLean is experiencing his best season for the club. Having grown into the role that McInnes has asked him to fulfil, he has incorporated fresh elements to his game such as aggression and tackling but if the midfielder is to impact the final then he must be strong and assertive, and believe he belongs in the company of players such as Armstrong, Sinclair, et al.
His range of passing is a key aspect, and allows Aberdeen to counter-attack at pace. On his day, McLean strokes the ball around the pitch as a paintbrush on a canvas, but whether he can create the art that his side are looking for will depend on the midfield’s ball retention. If Ryan Jack is absent, there will be added onus on McLean which could make or break the former St Mirren man’s afternoon.
Graeme Shinnie (Aberdeen)
The terrier. Shinnie’s evolution into a full-blooded centre midfielder is complete, and the Aberdonian will lead his side out against Celtic, having taken over the captaincy from Jack. While his omission from the Scotland set-up continues to baffle his manager, Shinnie has shown that he can thrive in any role that he is designated.
Against a team of Celtic’s quality, it is likely that he will operate at the base of midfield and be trusted with attempting to unsettle the rhythm of Celtic. Whether Rodgers opts to play Tom Rogic or Callum McGregor from the off remains unclear but Shinnie will likely be tasked with displaying his bulldog tendencies to get in the faces of Celtic’s creative players by snapping at their heels and regaining possession. What he offers in an attacking sense cannot be ignored, having even been utilised at the point of Aberdeen’s 4-2-3-1 system. Shinnie’s drive and intensity spurs on his team and he will be a protagonist in Saturday’s clash.
Scott Sinclair (Celtic)
25 goals in his first season meant that he was rightfully crowned PFA Scotland Player of the Year and the new lease of life that the winger has enjoyed at Celtic is largely down to how well he suits Rodgers’ philosophy. A roamer, Sinclair operates from the left but is afforded the privilege of ghosting in field and taking up pockets of space in advanced areas.
The battle between Sinclair and his compatriot Shay Logan will fascinate as neither player lacks pace. For Sinclair to enjoy the occasion it will go down to whether Aberdeen’s fullback is prepared to go tight to his man or stand off and try to preempt his movement. Quite clearly, the player Celtic signed from Aston Villa in the summer is one of the most gifted in Scotland and will be key to the shaping of proceedings on Saturday.