The pressure is on Celtic manager Neil Lennon.
Few at the start of the 20-21 season would’ve expected a Betfred Cup match at home to Ross County to be make-or-break or this Celtic side. Yet, here we are.
With a transfer outlay of £17.75m in 2020 yielding less than perfect results, and a number of squad options needing to find match sharpness, Lennon has his best opportunity yet to freshen the team.
In our view, Lenny should be looking around the fringes of his squad for tomorrow’s Cup clash, especially with Ross County missing a number of key players through injury.
A quadruple-treble is still very much at stake, but the big names aren’t performing. If we’re to preserve this historic run in Scotland’s cup competitions, Lurgan Klopp needs to give game time to players who have earned it, and drop the ones who haven’t.
Some bold decisions need to be made, and here’s the team we think will line up tomorrow.
Barkas in for Bain, Duffy redemption?
Even Saints would lose their patience with our goalkeeping situation. Vasilis Barkas was unceremoniously dropped for Scott Bain a few weeks back, and it was a mistake that needs to be fixed post-haste.
In our opinion, Barkas has served his time out of the first-team. Get him in against a Ross County side who haven’t been prolific going forward, and let him build his confidence back. He could be a real player if we give him the opportunities.
We think Lennon could well dip back into his favoured 3-5-2 for this tie. With that in mind, Christopher Jullien and Kristoffer Ajer seem nailed-on to start, with a return for Shane Duffy very much on the cards. The Irish international defender should, theoretically, have an easier time of it.
The calming influence of Jullien by his side should make up for any potential missed interceptions or lapses of concentration. Side-note: that’s a pretty damning thing to say about a Premier League defender, isn’t it?
Elhamed doesn’t look entirely convincing in terms of match sharpness, and while Jullien hardly covered himself in glory, he did at least win his aerial duels against Sparta Prague.
Pace on the wings
On the wings, Diego Laxalt should probably keep his place. He works better as LWB as opposed to a traditional full-back, and he’s likely to get some joy on Ross County’s right-hand side. On the other flank, we want to see Karamoko Dembélé, but it’s more likely Mohammed Elyounoussi will start.
That’s not a knock on Moi, who has been outstanding so far. It’s just that these games seem tailor-made for fringe players. Sadly, chatter around Dembélé persists, as the Ivorian-born England youth international can’t seem to break into the first team.
Although we haven’t seen much of Elyounoussi on the right for Celtic, we’re limited for options. The first team squad is suddenly thin on the ground in terms of wide players, and Frimpong has been far from his electric best.
Hatem Abd Elhamed wasn’t the answer on Thursday night.
A big call to make in midfield
In the middle, Tom Rogic‘s Celtic revival should continue apace, next to Callum McGregor and Ryan Christie.
Dropping Scott Brown for any game is a big call, and the last time we did it, we missed him. In a generally poor team performance against St. Johnstone, Brown came on after 70 minutes and gave the midfield impetus.
Nonetheless, he was absolutely torrid against Sparta Prague. In other games, Ismaila Soro might’ve been worth a chance. His timeline for development needs to be hastened as Brown continues to decline. Surely he’ll get other opportunities in other matches.
Sunday’s game has suddenly become a must-win, and miles on the clock are a must in the middle.
An experienced midfield three that oozes creativity would be just what Celtic need in this tie. With the combined physical gifts of each, they’d be a handful for any team on their day.
Up front, Odsonne Edouard and Albian Ajeti is a fledgling partnership that could see some joy against Ross County’s probable centre back pairing of Iacovitti and Donaldson.
Edouard is coming back into form after his goal in European action during the week. Meanwhile, Ajeti has to be handed more opportunities if he’s to make the grade under Neil Lennon. Leigh Griffiths is out, and Klimala doesn’t seem to be the flavour of the month at Lennoxtown.
With Edouard still very much in the shop window, he needs to be taking his chances in games like this. Winning this game is vital for Celtic’s historic march to the Quadruple-Treble, and our main man needs to be on song.
On-song Edouard. The headlines write themselves.
Predicted XI: Vasilis Barkas, Shane Duffy, Christopher Jullien, Kristoffer Ajer, Diego Laxalt, Moi Elyounoussi, Callum McGregor, Tom Rogic, Ryan Christie, Odsonne Edouard, Albian Ajeti.