An early “top of the table” clash takes place in Edinburgh this Saturday lunchtime with Premiership champions Celtic heading to the capital to face Craig Levein’s Hearts. The Jambos have extensively added to their squad over the summer and are currently dealing with a drawn-out transfer saga over last season’s top scorer Kyle Lafferty, who is coveted by Rangers.
The Hoops can expect a tough game here, against a home side who hit the ground running last weekend with a free-wheeling 4-1 drubbing of Hamilton Accies. Levein’s men are not the same side that barely crept into the top half last season and they will certainly see this as a game they can win. After a relatively short recovery time following the midweek 1-1 draw at home to AEK Athens, Brendan Rodgers will have to decide whether he fields tired players or reshuffles his squad.
Celtic fans will not have forgotten that the clubs’ first meeting at this venue last season ended in their first domestic defeat in 68 games. Their unbeaten streak is not quite as long heading into this game – it extends to 90 minutes last weekend in which they outclassed recently-promoted Livingstone with goals from Tom Rogic, Odsonne Edouard and Olivier Ntcham in a 3-1 win. The single goal in reply for the visitors resulted from a childish defensive error and Hearts will be on the lookout for any such slackness from their visitors this afternoon.
A win here for the home side would certainly set the cat among the pigeons, even this early in the season, not least as there have been some sounds of discontent emerging from the manager’s office at Celtic Park with Rodgers dissatisfied at a perceived lack of activity on the transfer front. Defeat here would add to a sense that Celtic are struggling to improve from a position of strength.
Our Hearts vs Celtic Prediction: Hearts 2-1 Celtic
This is possibly Hearts’ best chance to get a win against Celtic this season. The Hoops have spent most of the week preparing for, or recovering from, a European fixture, and will have the second leg of that tie on their mind to some extent. Whether Rodgers chooses to reshuffle his pack for this game, or goes with the same XI that blew a lead against AEK, there are likely to be some weaknesses in the visitors’ side here.
Nonetheless, Celtic are still Celtic. The home side here would be naive to think they can take anything for granted, not least as Celtic can call upon players in reserve that Hearts would be happy to have in their first team. The venue and the timing of this game make it feel like it will be close, but the champions should have enough to win here, even if it is by the odd goal.
Our recommended tip: Celtic to win and both teams to score
A look at the goals both teams conceded last week in winning routine games is enough to tell you that both managers have work to do with their defences. That Hearts and Celtic alike went on to secure three points is testament to their attacking qualities, but with the kind of fragility at the back these teams are exhibiting, it would be a surprise if there weren’t goals across the board here.
This game really comes down to who can outscore whom, and there is no doubt that Celtic have the stronger squad – particularly from an attacking point of view. Striker Edouard has shown an ability to exploit any defensive laziness even at this point in his fledgling career, and if he is not left out after the midweek game he will be a persistent thorn in the Maroons’ side. If Edouard is left out, Leigh Griffiths is scarcely a downgrade.
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Players to watch: Steven Naismith & Jack Hendry
Steven Naismith’s career has been somewhat packed, to the extent where it is often a surprise to realise that he’s just 31 years of age. Scottish players who make it elsewhere often come back to the SFL as a final hurrah, but the former Kilmarnock, Rangers and Everton man – on loan here from Norwich – could have several more hurrahs, potentially somewhere warmer and more lucrative.
A man of the match performance last weekend saw him create two goals, and win a penalty that he himself scored. Often a thorn in Celtic’s side during his stint with the blue half of Glasgow, he’ll welcome the chance to irritate them again.
Hendry arrived at Celtic on a permanent deal from Dundee in the January transfer window, and opinion has been divided on whether he will make it in the famous green-and-white hooped shirt. Signs that the crowd were getting on his back as Celtic toiled against Athens were disquieting, but Hendry has the talent to succeed.
This game will see Hendry come up against an attack that has quality and footballing intelligence, but it’s nothing he hasn’t faced before. Rodgers saw enough in him while Hendry played for Dundee to want to make him a Hoops player. A good performance in this game – if selected – could be the start of the making of Jack Hendry as a Celtic centre-back.