In a year that has been anything but ordinary, should we expect anything less in this Sunday’s delayed Scottish Cup Final?
The clash at Hampden is a repeat of the 2019 final, won 2-1 by Celtic, but as the world has changed dramatically since, so have the fortunes of both sides.
Hearts, now leaders in the Championship, will aim to halt an underperforming Celtic side in their quest to secure an unprecedented quadruple treble.
And though the world’s oldest national trophy will be contested in an empty national stadium, make no mistake, this is sure to be a game packed with drama.
When the two sides met in the last Scottish Cup final, Celtic had just romped to their 8th title in a row whilst Hearts finished 6th in the top flight.
Covid brought a halt to the following season in March, and with Celtic 13 points clear at the top and Hearts languishing 4 points adrift at the bottom, the former was handed their 9th title in a row while the latter was relegated to the championship.
However, this season, as the world around them has altered so have the outlook of each club. Hearts have made a blistering start to the Championship, averaging 3 goals per game, while Celtic have endured a drastic slump in form, crashing out of the League Cup and Europa League, while they trail rivals Rangers by 16 points in the Premiership.
The cup holders have picked up victories in their last two outings, but that follows a run which saw them win just twice in 12 games, with last weekend’s 2-0 win over Kilmarnock preceded by a fans’ protest outside Celtic Park – there is considerable pressure is really on the Champions in this historic season.
The Fabled Ten or a Quadruple Treble?
Outsiders to Scottish football might ask ‘why the widespread furore?’ with Celtic just one match away from a fourth clean sweep of domestic silverware. Simply, with the fabled ten-in-a-row in jeopardy, a quadruple treble would not do for the Parkhead faithful. This season was always going to be all about ‘the 10’ in Glasgow’s East End. The Quadruple Treble was supposed to be a precursor for this historic achievement, it will not be accepted as a replacement.
Ten-in-a-row would eclipse their fiercest rivals success, and the pursuit of this landmark spares nobody. They must win the league at all costs, and it may just be that Neil Lennon that pay’s the price regardless of whether he can deliver Celtic’s 40th Scottish Cup on Sunday.
The shadow of the ten looks to be piling relentless pressure on his men, with many of his players who have performed so brilliantly in the past, struggling to get going this season.
It won’t be lost on supporters that their recent two wins have come with the exclusion of Scott Brown in the starting 11. The 35-year-old has captained the side throughout their march to nine-in-a-row, but has looked off the pace, and Lennon now has selection issues with new signings David Turnbull and Ismaila Soro staking their claims.
Let’s remember that this is still last season’s Scottish Cup, and Lennon will be hoping his stars can replicate the form from that campaign. Odsonne Edouard, who finished the 2019-20 season top of the goalscoring charts, is 6 goals behind Rangers right-back James Tavernier this term.
Still, despite this supposed doom and gloom hanging over Celtic Park, their supporters can go into this fixture feeling confident. They have won everything in Scotland for the last four years and go into the final as overwhelming favourites, meeting a side from the division below.
This Celtic side is bound to break out of their slump at sometime, but can all the protests, speculation, and pressure surrounding the club help Hearts on Sunday?
SOMETHING SPECIAL FROM HEARTS
Hearts go into this game as huge underdogs but it should hold no fear. With little to lose, they head to Hampden in a rich vein of form following a 6-1 drubbing of Queen of the South last weekend.
They also have former winners in their side, with experienced duo Craig Gordon and Christophe Berra lifting the trophy for the club in 2006 alongside manager Robbie Neilson.
Gordon also won the Scottish Cup twice with Celtic and could have been lining up for the men in green had contract negotiations worked out in the summer, Meanwhile veteran striker Steven Naismith has also won the cup with Rangers in 2009.
However, having lost their last 8 games to the Parkhead club, it may take something special from Neilson’s men, and their seismic task is perhaps highlighted by the fact that should Celtic win on Sunday, they would have won as many Scottish Cups in their last four seasons as Hearts have over the last 113 years.
But they go in with little pressure on them, and they do carry a threat. In Steven Naismith and Liam Boyce, who was topscorer in the Scottish Premiership in 2017, they have good attacking options, and Naismith, Berra and Gordon all carry top flight experience from England.
This final also takes on special significance for the Gorgie club and it could be that a former teammate of Neilson, Gordon and Berra is the inspiration they need.
Marius Zaliukas, the former Hearts captain, who led the side to their most recent Scottish Cup win in 2012, tragically passed away on the day the Tynecastle side booked their place in the final with an extra-time win over Edinburgh rivals Hibernian.
The Hearts players will don the number 26 on their shorts on Sunday in tribute to their former skipper and it would be fitting should they take the trophy back to the capital in his honour.
Either way, this will be an emotional game, with plenty at stake. In the most unpredictable of years, you can rely on this fixture to live up to the billing.