Four teams, two fixtures in two different stadiums in two different cities on the same day. It’s the Betfred Cup Semi-Final matches.
Imagine the chaos that would have ensued had the SPFL stuck to their genius plan of having both Semi-Final fixtures at Hampden Park on the same day…But let’s not get into a scheduling debate, whether it ought to be Hampden or Murrayfield that’s the national stadium, why Neil Doncaster ought to resign or any of that nonsense for now.
Let’s take a look at the four semi-final teams that are a game away from the first major cup final in the Scottish football season.
Heart of Midlothian vs Celtic
In what ought to be a fascinating and intriguing encounter, the Premiership’s top two meet in the capital in the first semi-final on Sunday 28th October at Murrayfield.
Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Paris Saint Germain and…Hearts. Before Kilmarnock, the only teams to have beaten Celtic twice under Brendan Rodgers. Whilst that stat is certainly one to make you chuckle, the fact that Hearts were the only Scottish team to have done so, their 1-0 victory at Tynecastle back in August in the second Premiership fixture of the season and their famous 4-0 victory in December 2017 in which they ended Celtic’s record-breaking undefeated domestic run, has to be considered a good omen.
Should you look at the starting December team in comparison to today’s table topping side, only Jamie Brandon, Michael Smith, Christophe Berra and Harry Cochrane remain at the club. Anthony McDonald the only one of three substitutes that day to also be plying his trade for Hearts. Granted one of the goalscorers then also netted the winner back in August but even since Kyle Lafferty’s departure, to fellow semi-finalists Rangers, Hearts have remained top of the pile.
It’s been a summer of change in Gorgie, an influx of new players coming in with some dead wood being cleared out and so far so good for Craig Levein’s men. Last season was a case of playing dull, conservative, shut-out football but this season has seen a radical change in playing staff, playing style at times and tactical approach, away from home in particular.
The league’s current top goalscorer, Steven Naismith, is amongst the ranks and considering Hearts only scored 39 league goals in 38 games last season, the third lowest in the league, that highlights just how far the Jambos have come in such a short space of time in an attacking sense.
Hearts may have contributed to one of Celtic’s two losses in the league so far but they’re in a worse shape now than before they kicked off that very day. Central defender pairing Christophe Berra and John Souttar, having both formed a formidable partnership, both receiving long term injuries and Uche Ikpeazu, looking a real threat to Premiership defences, also out for a while have been big blows but as stated before, Hearts remain in Premiership pole position despite being under no illusions as to how tricky this task will be.
Neither are Celtic, the Hoops having lost two of the last three times they’ve faced the Jambos in the capital, yet starting to find their domestic groove again. Celtic may have handed Hearts their only loss at the newly refurbished Tynecastle Park so far but had suffered from their worst league start for 20 years following the last-gasp loss to Kilmarnock.
That appears to be behind them and despite also dropping out of Champions League qualification following the third qualifying round loss to AEK Athens and therefore into the Europa League, occupy second spot domestically still winning six from nine league fixtures so far this season.
It’s not all doom and gloom yet for Celtic, they’re just beginning to find their stride. The 6-0 win at St Johnstone is the type of ruthless performance we’re accustomed to seeing from them under the guide of Brendan Rodgers. They will fancy their chances against anyone, feeling as though nobody is getting in the way as they seek their third treble winning season in a row.
They have a handful of players that can hurt Hearts, most notably £9 million man Odsonne Edouard who Celtic broke their transfer record in the summer to sign. James Forrest with four league goals and three assists so far this season, contuining to thrive under Brendan Rodgers. Boyhood Hibernian fan Leigh Griffiths absolutely adores scoring against Hearts and has done so time and time again throughout his career. Tom Rogic, another who loves scoring against the Jambos, has the league’s most assists so far this season with four.
You may look at Celtic faltering in Europe slightly and feel as though they’re not the side that they have been in recent seasons but it’s fair to say that it won’t be long before they’re at the summit of the league table again. They couldn’t think of anything worse than having Hearts, who ended that unbeaten run, end their quest for the treble treble too.
Aberdeen vs Rangers
Two of last season’s top three meet in another enticing affair at Glasgow’s Hampden Park on Sunday 28th October after Hearts and Celtic have gone head-to-head.
Aberdeen will look to put their stuttering league start behind them, currently occupying seventh spot, as they take on Rangers who beat them in three of their four league meetings between the sides last season.
Despite that last grab point at Pittodrie thanks to Bruce Anderson’s goal in the previous meeting between the two this campaign, Aberdeen really have underperformed in the big clashes so far this season. They’ve taken a point away at Hibs, lost at home to Kilmarnock and been beaten at both Parkhead and Tynecastle by the other two semi-final participants.
They’ve proved in the past they can mix it with the big boys. You even need only look at their unlucky European exit to last season’s Premier League surprise package Burnley to see how well Derek McInnes’ men can perform, they’re just missing a certain something so far domestically this season and you’d probably be quick to pinpoint the lack of goals.
Stevie May, since arriving from Preston North End, hasn’t hit the heights that we know he can following his St Johnstone scoring exploits. James Wilson has only netted once in the league since arriving on loan from Manchester United, in the 1-0 win over Motherwell in Pittodrie and Sam Cosgrove’s only scored a brace against St Mirren before the international break just gone.
All these striker problems whilst Adam Rooney has scored 13 in 16 for Salford City, since joining the ambitious Conference Premier side. Yes it’s the English fifth tier but you can only beat what’s in front of you and Aberdeen could do with somebody with that strike rate in the Scottish top tier, that’s for sure.
Aberdeen haven’t beaten Rangers since their notable 2-1 victory at Ibrox towards the back end of the 2016-17 season in which the Dons finished second in the league and runners-up in both cup competitions. They may be some way off that so far this term but there’s still a long way to go and anything can happen in a cup semi-final.
As for Rangers, if they could get their away league form sorted we could be looking at one of the closest title races in years. Formidable at Ibrox both domestically and continentally, away from home in the league this season they are yet to get going.
Their away from has been so poor that the 4-1 win away at Hamilton was the first league win on their travels since the 27th February, another 4-1 win up at McDiarmid Park against St Johnstone.
Away from home so far this season, they’ve thrown two points away against Sunday’s opponents Aberdeen at Pittodrie, given Motherwell their first league point with the last kick of the game (one of only two so far at home for them this season), lost away to bitter rivals Celtic in a 1-0 loss that flattered them and also lost to surprise package Livingston in West Lothian by the same scoreline.
Yet in Europe, they haven’t lost away from home this season. Most notably when nine men held on in Russia to get them to the group stage where they’ve also drawn away to Villarreal, the hardest side they’ve had to face in Europe to date. Nine men are better against FC Ufa than 11 against Motherwell and Livingston? Funny old game, football.
Aware that Hampden is obviously a neutral venue so that shouldn’t play into the players’ minds too much, should it? Or do they just struggle outside of Govan? Will the game being in Glasgow have a positive mental impact, who knows?
Everyone is aware that Rangers are a sleeping giant domestically, this is an excellent opportunity for Steven Gerrard to lead them to their first piece of silverware since 2011, winning both this competition and their last league title. Seven/eight years too long for a club the size of Rangers and whilst it’s no easy task, that motivation alone ought to make this match another compelling and riveting semi-final.