FOR the second time in three seasons, Scotland’s top two for the past four years will battle it out for the first major trophy of the season.
Aberdeen and Celtic go head to head in Sunday’s Betfred League Cup Final at Hampden in a repeat of the 2016 showpiece. It was the Bhoys who triumphed with a convincing 3-0 victory to secure their first trophy under Brendan Rodgers, and have claimed another added five more on the trot in a period of total domestic dominance.
Sunday’s affair presents them with a golden opportunity to equal a Scottish record seventh consecutive major trophy, currently held by Walter Smith’s Rangers team from 1992 to 1994. They are hot favourites to do so on current form having scored 26 goals in their last seven matches, where only Livingston kept them at bay in a goalless draw before the international break.
The Dons, however, have a point to prove against the men in Green and White having produced a dismal display two years ago and running them much closer in the Scottish Cup Final later that season, before ultimately going down 2-1 with an injury time winner.
Until the international break, Derek McInnes’s side seemed to have turned a corner having won four domestic matches in a row, including the Semi Final win over Rangers. However, key central defender Michael Devlin picked up an injury on international duty with Scotland and is now a doubt for the Final. The team didn’t cope well in his absence, going down timidly 3-0 at Fir Park on Saturday in their last match before the Final.
It sums up the stop-start season he and partner Scott McKenna are having. Due to a combination of injury and dubious suspensions, the pair have only started six domestic matches together this campaign. In that time, only three goals (two of those from the penalty spot) have been shipped when the two been in the team as a central defensive pair, highlighting their importance to the backbone of the Dons side.
Should Devlin make it, it gives Aberdeen an insurance policy knowing they can keep the defence together, placing emphasis on those further up the pitch to nick the all important goals that could be decisive. That has been a problematic area for the men in Red all campaign, where only seven goals have been scored by the clubs strikers all season. Two of them have been scored by Bruce Anderson, the 19 year old who has come off the bench in all of his first team appearances and his cameo roles, added to his Reserve team form, have convinced many followers of the Red Army that he should start Sunday’s match ahead of Stevie May, Sam Cosgrove and James Wilson, who have all been very poor so far this season. McInnes will be hoping that Lewis Ferguson, the hero in the Semi Final, and ex Celt Gary MacKay-Steven can step up to the big occasion again to be the driving force at the top end of the park to deliver a second League Cup triumph in his tenure.
However, Aberdeen will need to stop the free scoring Celtic machine to have any chance of success. Almost by accident, Rodgers has got a perfectly balanced team again having went too long trying to shoehorn Tom Rogic and Callum McGregor into the side. Injuries to skipper Scott Brown and midfield partner Olivier Ntcham has forced his hand, moving McGregor to a deeper role, bringing back Scott Sinclair and promoting Ryan Christie into the starting line up.
The move has been to devastating effect, with Christie in particular producing some outstanding performances as Celtic look more like the side that saw them go unbeaten in Rodgers first season. Having spent 18 months at Pittodrie, Christie has waited patiently for his opportunity and has grabbed it with both hands, and has carried that form onto the international stage with two excellent performances in the Nations League for Scotland.
Another man on a high from his international exploits is James Forrest. Having not scored in his first 24 caps, Forrest has netted five times in the last two matches, including a hat trick against Israel, and is one of the main beneficiaries of Brendan Rodgers man management skills having looked as though he was heading for the Celtic Park exit door. He is now hoping to become the first player since Bobby Lennox to score in three consecutive League Cup Finals, though technically he has scored in his last three Finals though one of that sequence was interrupted by the Ross County and Hibs Final of 2015/16.
The smart money suggests that Celtic will extend their League Cup Finals record over Aberdeen to three victories given the form they are in just now and their recent outstanding Cup Record, which stands at 21 wins in a row. However, the law of averages dictate that Aberdeen are due a Final victory to even the score to 2-2 in League Cup Final duals with the Hoops, and are looking for it to be third time lucky in overall Cup Finals in the Rodgers v McInnes era.
Sunday’s match will ultimately come down to how much Aberdeen can stop Celtic from getting into their rhythm, and all of their players will need to turn up on the day to stop Edouard, Christie, Rogic and co from dictating the game. If they can keep up their impressive Betfred Cup record this season, where they have yet to concede in their three matches en route to Hampden, then the trophy could be heading to the Granite City.
On the other hand, if Celtic bring their A game onto the big stage again, more room will need to be made in the Parkhead trophy room for yet another piece of silverware under Brendan Rodgers.