Brendan Rodgers and Celtic hope to move past further disappointment on the road in Europe when they take on Hearts in the Scottish League Cup semi-final on Sunday.
The Hoops fell to a 2-0 defeat to RB Leipzig in Germany on Thursday night, leaving them with an uphill task of reaching the Europa League last-32, with three points from as many games leaving them third in Group B.
But the reigning Scottish champions have a flawless record in domestic cup competitions under the Northern Irishman, with two Scottish Cups and two League Cups part of their historic ‘Double Treble.’
However, Hearts – currently atop the league table – will provide a tough test for the Bhoys. Craig Levein’s men will be confident of securing a win, too, having beaten Celtic 1-0 at Tynecastle Park. Our friends at Football Whispers look at how Rodgers’ men can avoid a repeat of that result.
Fight through injury-hit squad
Whereas Rodgers prioritised the upcoming Champions League qualifier with AEK Athens back in August, it was quite the opposite this week with the coach keeping one eye on the Murrayfield showdown as he picked his side to face Leipzig.
With Scott Brown, Tomas Rogic and Leigh Griffiths all injured, the likes of Lewis Morgan, Kouassi Eboue and Ryan Christie were afforded the chance to make an impression from the start on Thursday night.
Rodgers will still be without Brown, Griffiths and Dedryck Boyata (suspended) for Sunday’s clash so the former Liverpool boss will certainly hope that the players he sends out to battle Hearts are fully fit and ready for a serious assessment.
Jozo Simunovic (ankle), Kristoffer Ajer (hamstring), Filip Benkovic (Achilles), Cristian Gamboa (hamstring) and Nir Bitton (knee) are also doubts. Celtic’s squad will be stretched, but they’ll still be expected to win.
Avoid sloppy errors in possession
Somewhat obvious, yes, but Simunovic’s carelessness in possession cost Celtic back in August. The defender’s sloppy pass was easily intercepted by Peter Haring, which led to Uche Ikpeazu powering down the right and picking out Kyle Lafferty, who volleyed past Craig Gordon in devastating fashion.
While Lafferty has since moved back to Rangers, Rodgers knows that unforced errors on the ball may prove decisive once again.
Considering that both of Leipzig’s goals on Thursday came as a result of Celtic failing to clear simple crosses into the box, it’s reasonable to assume that Rodgers will relay this message to his players before sending them out on Sunday.
Winning midfield battle is crucial
With Brown – such a colossal figure for Celtic in crunch cup ties down the years – missing, Olivier Ntcham must assume responsibility and put his heart and soul into Sunday’s midfield battle.
Eboue struggled at Tynecastle in August up against a fearsome midfield duo of Haring and Olly Lee, who were determined not to lose the scrap in the middle of the park.
If the young Ivorian starts on Sunday, a vastly improved display is required. Admittedly, Brown and Ntcham had no response in December, when Hearts ran riot and won 4-0 to end Celtic’s 69-game unbeaten domestic run.
Of course, Celtic will be aware that Haring, impressive during that win in August, is not 100 percent fit, having missed the last two games with a muscle problem connected to his ongoing hernia issue.
The Austrian participated in training ahead of the Celtic game but, with Levein admitting that he is unlikely to play the full 90 minutes, applying early pressure on the 25-year-old may be key to dismantling this impressive Hearts side.
Which Edouard will show up?
Odsonne Edouard is a fantastic talent. The young Frenchman, who joined Celtic on a permanent basis in the summer having impressed on loan from Paris Saint-Germain last season, has demonstrated why it took £9million to secure his services from the French giants.
Edouard has scored eight times in all competitions this season. However, he has yet to add consistency to his game. Before the 3-1 defeat to Salzburg a few weeks back, the 20-year-old had gone eight games without scoring. He then struck four times in three games, including a brace in the 4-2 win over Hibernian.
But his touch deserted him against Leipzig. Having missed an early chance, the forward was dispossessed a total of nine times, more than any other player in a Europa League match this season.
With Griffiths a major doubt for Sunday, the burden of goalscoring may fall solely on Edouard’s shoulders. Capable of the spectacular, can the youngster get over a night to forget in Germany and fire Celtic into another final?
Pay close attention to Morrison
Callum Morrison, whose impressive appearances on Hearts’ right wing this season have marked him out as one of Scottish football’s most exciting young talents, must be kept under wraps.
The 19-year-old relishes taking on his man but, in Kieran Tierney, Celtic have a man with enough pace to match the Hearts flyer.
Morrison didn’t feature in August’s game but Celtic will know all about him. If Sunday’s tie settles into a pattern of Celtic dominating the ball and Hearts sitting deep, Tierney – who captained his side on Thursday – can ill-afford to get caught high up the pitch with Morrison’s threat on the break.
Morrison will be key to Hearts’ chances of reaching their first cup final since 2012. His battle against Tierney, a fellow rising star, should be compelling stuff.
* Odds subject to change