FOUR teams, one venue, one aim! Yes it’s the Semi Finals of the Betfred League Cup this weekend.
On Saturday, holders Celtic take on Hibernian at Hampden, which also hosts the second Semi Final on Sunday when Rangers face Motherwell.
It promises to be two interesting ties for various reasons.
The Celtic and Hibs match certainly has many factors that makes the promise for a really good game. Only three weeks ago, the two met at Celtic Park where the hosts were within minutes of a first domestic defeat since May 2016 until Callum McGregor saved their bacon to salvage a 2-2 draw.
Last weekends nervy 1-0 win over Dundee extended that run to 59 matches and Saturday is another tough examination for Brendan Rodgers side if they are to continue that impressive streak. Those last two matches, Celtic have shown signs of complacency in domestic matches, where they’ve been making multiple changes to their line up to utilise the depth of their squad, and it almost cost them in the two games.
With this being a National Cup Semi Final, it’s unlikely that Rodgers will tinker too much from the side that lost to Bayern Munich in midweek and will go with a strong lineup to face a Hibs side who have a good Cup record in recent seasons. This will be the Hibees seventh domestic Semi Final since 2012 and will be looking for their fifth Final appearance in that period with victory on Saturday.
There is also the incentive for Neil Lennon to knock out his former side. Lennon doesn’t have much luck in this competition as a manager, losing two Finals, a Semi Final and, most surprisingly, a shock 1-0 home defeat to Morton in his final season at Parkhead. He’ll be hoping that his luck changes this weekend and extends Hibs impressive Cup record into another Final.
Whilst Hibs are underdogs, they will be confident giving their recent Parkhead showing and can take heart that they won the last meeting between the two in this competition back in 2003, a 2-1 win at Easter Road en route to a Final defeat by Livingston.
So it’s guaranteed that the East End of the National Stadium will be green on November 26, and 24 hours later we find out if the West side will be blue or claret and amber when Rangers and Motherwell go head to head.
These two met at this stage in 2011, which was won 2-1 by the Ibrox men in a tight game, and the form book suggests this could be another close affair.
Since being defeated by a Celtic side in second gear at Ibrox last month, Rangers have responded well with consecutive away wins at Hamilton and St Johnstone, scoring seven goals in the process, so they arrive at Hampden in confident mood. For Pedro Caixinha, this presents a golden opportunity for him to reach his first major Final since arriving in March and start winning over several members of the Rangers support, who’ve not been convinced by him in his short tenure in Scotland.
From day one, Caixinha has made a rod for his own back with his motormouth approach, and Sunday is a key game for him to start backing up his words by taking Rangers within one game of silverware by turning over a Motherwell side full of confidence themselves.
Written off by many at the start of the season as a side who would be battling relegation, including yours truly, Motherwell sit fourth above St Johnstone and both Edinburgh clubs and earned their way into the Semi Finals by destroying Aberdeen 3-0 at Fir Park in the Quarter Finals.
The performances this season under manager Stephen Robinson, who was dismissed as a cheap option when Well appointed him as Mark McGhee’s successor, have been very impressive, all the more so with the arrival of several new players in the summer. That recruitment, and retaining top scorer Louis Moult, have been key in their revival this season and has also led to Robinson signing a new deal until 2020.
Sunday’s match on a bigger surface, and with the majority of the Hampden crowd in blue, presents a real challenge for Motherwell as they seek to reach only their second League Cup Final, the last of which came in 2005 when they were swept aside 5-1 by their Semi Final opponents. They did prove on the opening day that they could give Rangers a real test, going down 2-1 in a game separated only by a Graeme Dorrans penalty, and they’ll need to show more of that intensity, otherwise Rangers do have the ability to punish them as proven in recent weeks.
Most pundits will predict an Old Firm Final as their outcome from the two ties, and on paper it’s difficult to argue with that. However, Hibernian and Motherwell will have enough motivation to try to prove the neutrals wrong and have the credentials to upset the odds.
Let’s hope, from a neutral perspective, that both Betfred Cup Semi Finals live up to their billing as potential crackers.