Sport

Celtic look to bounce back in Betfred Cup semi-final against Hibs

Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers and Hibernian manager Neil Lennon cross swords today for the second time in two weeks after the 2-2 draw at Celtic Park on October 7
By Gavin McCafferty and Will Jackson

Betfred Cup semi-final: Celtic v Hibernian (Saturday, Hampden Park, 12.15pm, BT Sport 1)

CELTIC manager Brendan Rodgers is confident his players’ big-game mentality can see them overcome far-from-ideal preparations for the Betfred Cup semi-finals.

The players got home from Germany about four o’clock on Thursday morning following a 3-0 Champions League defeat by Bayern Munich, and have only had one day’s training to prepare for their Hampden clash with Hibernian.

But Celtic clinched the trophy last season with a comprehensive 3-0 win over Aberdeen on the Sunday after a 7-0 Nou Camp loss to Barcelona on the Wednesday.

“This situation isn’t new to us,” Rodgers said. “Since we have been here working together we have come back late from Champions League games, we have come back late from domestic games, and we go into the next game with a real aggressive, positive mindset.

“We play in big games, the players have succeeded in big games. The game in Bayern Munich, even though the result didn’t go for us, was a great learning game for us. We will take so much from that, and that will benefit us going into Saturday’s game and games after that.

“We are honest in defeat when we lose and that has always allowed us to keep going and keep the focus for the next game.

“The disappointment will be gone. We have been in the Champions League before and lost games and bounced back. We lost to Barcelona and went into the final and were absolutely brilliant. And that was a real sapping game, the Barcelona game.

“The focus is on the now and that is about preparing yourself as best you can, mentally and physically.”

Rodgers believes his players have the ability to rise to the occasion – as they did when beating both Rangers and the Dons twice at Hampden last season as they sealed the treble.

“That was something we spoke about last year,” he said.

“If you think about the semi-finals and the finals, we played very well. We played with a composure and confidence in pressure situations, and that’s absolutely vital if you are going to win trophies. So that’s the mindset we will take into the game.”

Hibs have come as close as anyone to ending Celtic’s unbeaten domestic record under Rodgers, which now stands at 59 matches. John McGinn’s second goal in their league meeting on September 30 put Neil Lennon’s team 2-1 up with 13 minutes left, but Callum McGregor soon levelled a close game.

NEIL Lennon admits his Hibernian side face a “tall order” if they are to topple Celtic and reach the final of the Betfred Cup.

Hibs face the daunting task of taking on Brendan Rodgers’ side in the semi-final at Hampden Park today, with the Hoops in the midst of a 59-game unbeaten domestic run.

Lennon’s side came as close as anyone to ending the sequence, being held to a 2-2 draw at Celtic Park in September after a late Callum McGregor goal, but he has played down the significance of that result and laid down the challenge to his squad.

“The performance at Celtic Park, whilst it was a good performance, it will bear no significance on tomorrow even though it’s still very fresh in the memory,” he said.

“This team are undefeated in over a year domestically, so it tells you about the tall order in front of us, but it’s not insurmountable.

“It’s a semi-final, and I’ve told the players no one remembers semi-finalists so it’s important they take the game in isolation and not think about two weeks ago and focus on the here and now.”

The surroundings today will be familiar for the Hibs players, who have recent experience of playing in the national stadium having won the Scottish Cup in 2016 and finished runners-up in the League Cup that same season.

Such experience could be crucial to the squad, and Lennon tipped John McGinn to prosper after the midfielder scored twice in the draw earlier in the season.

He said: “He’s a big-game player and I have a few of those in the team. They’ve been at Hampden on a few occasions now so it won’t be unfamiliar surroundings for them.

“John is playing very, very well, so he’s in a good vein of form and I hope he carries that on into the game tomorrow because we’re going to need everybody at their best.”

With Rangers facing Motherwell in the other semi-final, there remains a prospect of an Old Firm final in November, and Lennon said he was happy to go under the radar in the build-up.

“There’s an expectation on the Old Firm to get to the finals and compete, so it’s nothing new,” he said.

“It has been a low-key build-up, which suits me.

“In terms of our preparation, it’s been pretty good and no different to how we’d approach other games. Celtic are favourites in every game they play domestically so I don’t think it will have any bearing on their mindset.”

CELTIC v HIBS TALKING POINTS

CAN CELTIC HACK THE PACE?

CELTIC have become a relentless winning machine under Brendan Rodgers but there are signs they are starting to feel the strain of competing on all fronts. Saturday’s game against Hibs will be their 21st match of the season already – not to mention the international commitments many of their squad have also had to squeeze in.

The champions were held to a draw by Neil Lennon’s energised line-up when they met at Celtic Park on September 30, and were flat again as they edged past Dundee last weekend. Now, having being given the runaround by Bayern Munich in Germany on Wednesday night, it will take a mighty effort to eke out another winning display.

SELECTION WORRIES FOR RODGERS

WHILE skipper Scott Brown and fellow midfielder Stuart Armstrong were back in the Celtic line-up after injury for their 3-0 Champions League defeat by Bayern, there was a setback for Rodgers before the midweek game when defender Jozo Simunovic suffered a recurrence of his hamstring problem.

That left the Carnlough man with little option but to move Mikael Lustig to centre-half, with Christian Gamboa taking the Swede’s right-back slot. However, after seeing Gamboa torn to shreds by Kingsley Coman, Rodgers may decide putting Lustig back out wide and bringing in either youngster Kris Ajer or midfielder Nir Bitton to partner Dedryck Boyata is the safer option.

HIBERNIAN MIGHT PUSH HOOPS ALL THE WAY AGAIN

FEW sides have come as close to ending Celtic’s long domestic unbeaten run as Hibs did last month. Inspired by two-goal hero John McGinn (above), the visitors looked to have the Hoops on the rack at Parkhead. Had it not been for Craig Gordon’s second half wonder save, they may even have become the first Scottish side since St Johnstone back in May 2016 to have toppled the treble holders. In the end a 2-2 draw was the best the Leith men could manage, but if they can match the intensity they showed the last time they visited Glasgow there is every chance they can go one better this time.

JOHN McGINN HAS A POINT TO PROVE

THE Hibernian midfielder could not have picked a better moment to produce one of the best displays of his career, rocketing home two goals at Celtic Park just days before the Scotland squad met up for games against Slovakia and Slovenia. Yet it was not enough to convince Gordon Strachan to throw him into action during the all-important World Cup qualifiers. But now that Strachan’s reign as national-team boss has come to an end, the opportunity is there for McGinn to prove he can be the future linchpin of Scotland’s midfield by putting on a repeat show of his Parkhead display.

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