The next Glasgow derby is almost upon us and without fans present it will be a strange one indeed. What hasn’t changed though are the glut of stories hitting both the sport pages of the web and tabloids in the build up to this first clash of the season between Neil Lennon and Steven Gerrard.
During the international break we’ve seen a number of Celtic players either testing positive for covid-19 or having to self isolate because of their proximity to infection. It has sparked an uproar over nationally duty protocol particularly because up until then, bar one or two infractions by individuals, Celtic had been meticulous in their own adherence to testing and government guidelines.
Now they are facing one the seasons biggest games without Odsonne Edouard, Hatem Elhamed, Nir Bitton and Ryan Christie. Christie didn’t test positive, but being in close proximity to Stuart Armstrong who did test positive, he has to self isolate for two weeks.
Alarming as it is that Celtic will be without all of these players, we do have strength in depth. So long as no further exclusions arise, Celtic will be able to field a strong side.
Vasilis Barkas will continue in goal as expected. He’s still finding his feet at the club and this will be a huge game for him, but his confidence is growing.
Goalkeepers are rarely tested at Celtic unless the opposition play more openly. That seldom happens of course unless you are playing against a more adventurous Scottish side or in a European match so Barkas will need to be on his toes this weekend as you can expect shots from anywhere.
In front of the Greek keeper, Celtic could field a back three or four without any problem. However, the question is whether Lennon is willing to risk all of his available central defenders in one go.
A back three has worked well this season, but with only three players to choose from without any backup, we would struggle in the event of injury or (dare I say it) a sending off. It may all come down to how fit Christopher Jullien is.
He’s been out for weeks and despite his impact in a Celtic jersey, this fixture may have come too soon for him. My own personal opinion would be to go for a back four with Jullien on the bench.
Needs must and if there is a requirement to change it, he can call upon the big man to step in should he need to. So that means giving Shane Duffy and Kristoffer Ajer the nod at the heart of defence which I am more than happy with.
On the right I would expect to see the effervescent Jeremie Frimpong. Even from a right back berth his energy alone has been a driving force in Neil Lennon’s side so he will be pivotal in this one.
On the other flank we will likely see Greg Taylor play the same role. He’s been ever present this season and despite the arrival of Diego Laxalt on loan from Milan, I can’t see Neil changing things for such a big match.
Taylor gets a bit of flak from some quarters, stating that he isn’t good enough. His application to playing the role though cannot be faulted though and many are unfairly expecting him to be Kieran Tierney.
There are aspects of Taylor’s game that he still needs to work on, but he’s been tireless in his efforts this season. So far he’s played twelve games, scoring once and providing four assists and I think his 90 minute performances have gotten better rather than having just one good half.
The arrival of Laxalt will of course provide the competition he will need to keep on top of his game or if absence occurs. I wouldn’t pick the Uruguayan over the Scot at this moment in time though.
So what about our midfield then? Well that is an area we are currently blessed in.
First pick of course is Scott Brown. He too has had his fair share of flak from our fans.
It’s fair to say that in some games his role is a little redundant. When the chips are down though and the game is physical, you want him in there.
He also does a good job protecting the back line. In the case where Celtic will allow their full backs to use the wings, Broony will fill in when they are in attack.
Just in front of our captain I would have Callum McGregor and Olivier Ntcham. Both know how to work the ball, find a man and even work a little wider if required.
That leaves the attacking side of things. With no Christie available that leaves the number 10 role open.
You could say give new Bhoy David Turnbull a shout or bring in Tom Rogic from the cold. I’m drawn here and is a real gamble either way so I’ll come back to that.
Another conundrum for Celtic is who to play up front. Neil Lennon will be looking to a growing-in-confidence Patryk Klimala, the timely return of Leigh Griffiths possibly even man-on-form Albian Ajeti.
The Swiss international pulled up with a hamstring injury after scoring against Hibs a couple of weeks back. He’s been in recovery since then, but it is a real possibility he will play a part in Saturday’s lunchtime encounter at Celtic Park.
With Griffiths back and looking hungry coupled with Klimala’s impressive goal the other week, there is plenty of competition. Who would I give the nod to though?
It will of course depend on how Lennon sees linking the attack. He hasn’t played two up front too often and I can’t see him doing that against Steven Gerrard’s side.
I think Klimala has been patient and shown his hunger when called upon. I would probably start him as our striker as he is proabaly the fittest out of the three.
So that leaves two left to pick. Assuming neither full back gets pinned back and can work the channels, you could throw in a number ten and someone who could switch wings.
If he was available I would choose James Forrest as we can play on both sides of the park and with the ability to play of the striker. Mohamed Elyounoussi has been hot and cold, but quite clearly a good asset though I don’t know if I would start with him.
Leigh Griffiths is good with the ball at his feet and versatile in attack. He is equally good with dead balls, be it corners or free kicks, so I would give him the nod playing off Klimala and working the channels.
That leaves the final place and I would give that to Turnbull. He’s played five games for Motherwell and four for Celtic this season scoring one for his former club and providing an assist for his new one.
His game time alone puts him ahead of Rogic who will be a brilliant player to have on the bench. So my starting eleven would be as follows:
I’d fill up the bench with Bain, Ralston, Laxalt, Jullien, Soro, Connell, Rogic, Elyounoussi and Ajeti. It’s not a bad bench to have should the manager need to changes things.
I’m looking forward to this one despite the loss of so many key players. With a Sober October Golden Ticket donated for me to get a little bit merry this Saturday I’m hoping it will be one to remember!