Celtic reach final hurdle in quest for '˜double treble'
As the Celtic manager looks to take a final step which proved beyond both Jock Stein and Walter Smith before him, he must hope that Motherwell do not have a modern-day version of Derek McKay or Craig Brewster in their ranks, ready to trip him up on his march towards another extraordinary piece of Scottish football history.
In 1970 and 1994, the only other occasions when a team have been potentially 90 minutes away from winning back-to-back domestic trebles, Celtic under Stein and then Smith’s Rangers were foiled at the Scottish Cup final hurdle by Aberdeen and Dundee United respectively. Like Rodgers’ Celtic side today, both of those outstanding teams of their eras arrived at Hampden as overwhelming favourites, only to be the victims of famous upsets – McKay the hero for Aberdeen with a double in their 3-1 win in 1970, Brewster the United match-winner with the only goal 24 years later.
The rarity of even having an opportunity to win a ‘double treble’ underlines the magnitude of what Celtic can achieve today, just 12 months after they became the first team to win the domestic clean sweep without losing a single match.
“You think of the great history of Scottish football – in all the various eras and levels of players – and there’s a reason why it’s never been done,” reflected Rodgers this week.
“All you want is a chance at it and we have a chance. It’s a brilliant chance for us. I never say to the players ‘you’ve got to take this chance because it will be the only chance in your life’ because part of me thinks ‘Do you not think you can do it again?’.
“So I never really go down that route with players but there’s no doubt there’s an opportunity here to write another chapter in the great history of the club.”
One notable aspect of Rodgers’ management of Celtic has been their apparent immunity to the normal vulnerability even the greatest teams can have in one-off domestic cup ties. In the 17 League Cup and Scottish Cup games since his arrival, Celtic have seldom been even threatened by the prospect of defeat. It makes them the most daunting opponents imaginable for Motherwell as they attempt to win only the fifth major trophy in the Fir Park club’s history. But if any team has a puncher’s chance against the dominant Scottish champions, it is perhaps the robust and resilient outfit moulded by Stephen Robinson. They won’t win any awards for artistic impression but are capable of channelling their physicality in a highly effective manner.
That is typified by striker Curtis Main, two-goal hero of their comfortable semi-final victory over Aberdeen, just one of the journeymen professionals who have thrived under Robinson this season. How Main is handled by the Celtic central defence of Kristoffer Ajer and Dedryck Boyata could be one of the key strands of what could be an intriguing final. As an attacking force, Celtic should hold all the aces with the attacking midfield trio of James Forrest, Tom Rogic and Callum McGregor asking all sorts of questions to a Motherwell defence who are also likely to find themselves confronting big occasion player Moussa Dembele on one of his ‘in the mood’ afternoons.
If the incentive of making Scottish football history is an obvious one for Celtic, however, their opponents will not be outdone in terms of motivation.
“It’s huge,” says Robinson. “For our boys, it’s not about the money. It’s the prestige. It’s the chance to become legends at this football club. In terms of the football club it would be absolutely huge.
“You still hear people speaking of the 1991 squad that won the Scottish Cup and they are revered around the football club. In terms of management, it would be the biggest thing I have ever achieved and I would imagine that would be the case for 100 per cent of our players.
“They have all come from non-league teams, under-23 teams and League Two down in England. None of them have played at any real level in the game and it would be a huge achievement for us.
“It’s a one-off game and anything can happen. People say some things are impossible in sport, but I think Leicester City and Northern Ireland have proved that’s not the case in football in recent years. There is no pressure on us. It is win-win for us. We have exceeded all expectations this season. We are going to go and enjoy the day if that is possible. We will try and take it all in but the only way you really enjoy it is with a victory and bringing the cup home.”
Motherwell have already proved they can be competitive against Celtic this season, with two draws against them in the Premiership at Fir Park and also in their 2-0 League Cup final defeat back in November when their hopes were effectively ended by Cedric Kipre’s contentious dismissal.
They can certainly ensure Scottish football’s showpiece occasion is another genuine contest but it is one where Rodgers and Celtic should be sure-footed enough to keep their date with ‘double treble’ destiny.