Thursday, 19 May 2011

Celtic v Motherwell - Scottish Cup Final Preview

Celtic will be without Joe Ledley and Beram Kayal but Kris Commons returns from suspension and will almost certainly start after netting nine times in his previous nine appearances.  Motherwell have a full squad to choose from, meaning the only selection worries Stuart McCall has is who to leave out of his starting eleven.

Celtic

With the absence of Ledley and Kayal in the last few games, Neil Lennon has moved Scott Brown into the centre of midfield alongside Ki Sung-Yeung.  In order to add more industry to the midfield, Charlie Mulgrew has been moved from his makeshift central defensive position to a makeshift midfield role.  Mulgrew has been deployed on the left-side of midfield but in a more tucked in role, like that of Brown for much of the season only on the opposite side.  The knock-on effect has been to move Kris Commons over to the right, meaning that we are now seeing a mirror of the lopsided 4-4-2 that Lennon has preferred for much of the season.

With Mulgrew being moved into midfield, Glenn Loovens has found himself restored to the starting line-up recently.  The Dutchman will take his place in an otherwise familiar back four.  The only other decision for Lennon is who to select in attack.  Gary Hooper is a certain starter but he then has to choose between Anthony Stokes and Georgios Samaras to partner him. 

Samaras broke his duct of only being selected for Old Firm matches when he was selected to play against Motherwell at the weekend and managed to get on the scoresheet.  Hooper and Stokes have a great understanding and their link up has been excellent at times this season, although Stokes seems to have been overlooked when the bigger matches arise, including Celtic’s previous cup final appearance this season.

Motherwell

With the cup final in mind, Stuart McCall has chopped and changed, rested and experimented in recent weeks so his last few line-ups and formations will have no bearing on his selection for Saturday.

The Motherwell manager has a full squad to choose from and has let it be known this week that he has decided upon his starting eleven with the exception of one position.  This could possibly be related to what formation he is deciding to go with.  When he first took charge, McCall experimented with a number of formations but settled upon a 4-4-2 (which became a 4-2-3-1 in possession) when Motherwell hit their best run of form since he took charge.

Despite this, Motherwell’s 2-0 victory over Celtic in February saw McCall line up his side in a 4-5-1 formation, matching Celtic man-for-man in the middle of the park.  The formation also included two pacey wingers that were positioned high up the pitch, pressing against Celtic’s full-back, thus, nullifying the threat they posed.

For that reason, as well as the probability that McCall will want to keep it tight early on, I think that Francis Jeffers, who usually partners John Sutton in attack, will have to make do with a place on the bench to make way for an extra central midfielder.  This means that the main selection worry that McCall was alluding to was more likely whether to go with Steve Jones or Chris Humphrey on the right wing but more on this below.

Key Battles

Whether or not Motherwell start the match with a central midfield two or a central midfield three, this area will be one of the key areas of the field.  Celtic’s formation is such that they, in effect, have three central midfielders, meaning that Motherwell will find themselves overrun should they go with 4-4-2.  So assuming Motherwell start 4-5-1 then Hateley-Jennings-Lasley up against Brown-Ki-Mulgrew will be an intriguing contest.

Even if matched man-for-man in the centre of midfield, Celtic’s ace in the hole could be Kris Commons.  The Scotland international’s starting position is that of a winger although he likes to drift inside and occupy the space between the lines, no matter which side he starts on.  With the central midfield three of each side lining up man-form-man against each other, Commons may just be the man to find space and punish Motherwell.

The above means that Celtic’s midfield tends to be narrow but, as has been a feature of their play and a successful tactic for much of the season, they like to get their full-backs forward to provide width.  Mark Wilson and Emilio Izaguirre have both been dangerous when getting forward though, as mentioned earlier, the presence of two Motherwell wingers high up the pitch may cause them to think twice before their forays into the opposition half, therefore, making them less of a threat.

Which takes us back to McCall’s main selection problem: Jones or Humphrey?  Jones is tricky and has more of an end product, whereas Humphrey is, for the most part, pure pace.  Jones likes to cut inside when on the right wing, whereas for Humphrey it’s all about hugging the touchline, getting outside the full-back and hitting the byline.

All things considered, Humphrey may just be the better choice.  Izaguirre has shown a little bit of fragility to the defensive side of his game – most notably in the post-split fixtures versus Inverness and Motherwell – and Humphrey may not only cause the Honduran to stay back more often, he may possess the attributes to punish him more effectively.  The other option is to keep Humphrey for later on in the match and use him as an impact substitution when everyone else is tiring as the pace he possesses could be deadly at that point.  The trouble with this is that it gambles that the match will still be alive come the latter stages.

Whichever player McCall decides upon, it will be interesting to see whether he, along with Jamie Murphy on the other wing, can not only prevent the Celtic full-backs from moving up the pitch and get involved in attacks, but also punish them if they do decide to get forward.

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