ONLY five months into the domestic season and already the first major trophy in Scottish Football is up for grabs this weekend as Scotland’s top two sides, Aberdeen and Celtic, go head-to-head in Sunday’s Betfred League Cup Final.
Unsurprisingly, Hampden is a sellout, which completely justifies the SPFLs decision to award a 50:50 allocation to both sets of fans, and it should create a great atmosphere for such an occasion.
This is the third time the two sides have met in the League Cup Final with both winning one apiece. Celtic claimed a 2-0 victory in the 2000 final whilst Aberdeen claimed a 2-1 victory 40 years ago this month under the late Ally McLeod, who was inducted into the Dons Hall of Fame this year.
Sundays occasion promises to be an intriguing one as both sides, for different reasons, are desperate to claim the first silverware of the season.
For Celtic, it gives Brendan Rodgers the chance to lift his first major trophy as a manager, something that is quite surprising given the reputation he’s built following his spells at Swansea and Liverpool, the latter of which saw him close to landing a League title before they surrendered to Manchester City in 2014.
There’s no question that he will win trophies at Parkhead, it’s almost a given that he’ll deliver the title this season with the resources Celtic have compared to their rivals, and they’ve already built up a ten point lead in the Premiership with a game in hand.
Although he may not admit it publicly, Rodgers will be craving the treble that critics feel Celtic ought to have delivered at least once in the absence of Rangers from the top flight, only for a number of high profile slip ups in Semi Finals against the likes of St Mirren, Inverness and Ross County.
The Betfred Cup is the first leg of that and his players will be determined to help Rodgers accomplish something only Jock Stein and Martin O’Neill have managed to achieve – bringing all three domestic trophies to the Celtic Park cabinet.
Rodgers has added quality to the Hoops squad in the likes of Moussa Dembele, Scott Sinclair and Kolo Toure whilst getting more out of the squad left to him with James Forrest, Stuart Armstrong and Tom Rogic in particular excelling this campaign.
Whilst Celtic have by far and away the strongest squad in the country, they can be beaten on a one-off occasion, and they will respect that Aberdeen will be tough opposition in Sundays Final.
Derek McInnes spoke earlier in the week about wanting to leave a legacy at Pittodrie that contains more than just the League Cup victory in 2014, which ended nearly 19 years of wait for silverware, and he has another opportunity to add another trophy under his belt.
Three and a half years after taking on what was perceived, with some justification, as a poisoned chalice, McInnes has rebuilt the clubs reputation by delivering that first trophy in nearly two decades and consistent League form that’s seen them emerge as Celtic’s only contender for the title, though they have fallen way short in the end in the previous two seasons.
However, he realises that, with a League title unlikely given Celtic’s vast resources compared to the Dons, Cup success is something the Red Army crave and they have underachieved by exiting the last three Cup competitions at the first hurdle.
Reaching Hampden this season was a major boost for the club given those early exits, and Aberdeen will be quietly confident of upsetting the odds by derailing Brendan Rodgers road to domestic domination.
What they need to do is learn from the mistakes of the two League matches, where the Dons stood off Celtic and allowed them to dominate, which led to defeats at Parkhead (4-1) and Pittodrie (a flattering 1-0). Whilst it’s important to realise that Celtic have the better players, the Dons can’t afford to show them too much respect and need to find a way to stop them playing and get their main flair players Niall McGinn, Johnny Hayes and on-loan star James Maddison on the ball to influence the game.
How Aberdeen nullify Celtic will be key to how the game goes because, if they allow the Hoops to bring their A game to the fore, the Cup will go to Parkhead. However, that Cup win in 2014 and the fact they did win two League games against Scotland’s champions, should provide a confidence booster to a Dons squad desperate to bring the Betfred Cup North to the Granite City.
The scene is set for, what promises to be, an intriguing climax to a competition that has arguably been rejuvenated this season with the reintroduction of the group stages and the early conclusion to the competition. Whilst the League Cup still lacks its appeal with no carat of European Football, something it can’t justify with the lack of slots available to Scottish clubs, it’s still a tournament that fans look forward to if their team is lucky enough to do well in.
If Celtic do go onto win the treble, their won’t be many of their fans dismissing it as a diddy cup if Brendan Rodgers lands himself a place in the clubs proud history. For Aberdeen, having gone nearly two decades without success, two League Cups in two and a half years would indicate a successful spell for Derek McInnes.
Neutrals will be hoping for a cup final classic, though fans of either Aberdeen or Celtic won’t care as long as their club lift the Betfred League Cup on Sunday.