Scottish League Cup: Hibs, Celtic advance over Gers, Saints

Celtic players celebrate after winning their Scottish Leagues Cup semifinal match. (Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images)
Celtic players celebrate after winning their Scottish Leagues Cup semifinal match. (Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images) /
Celtic, Hibs advance
Jo Aribo of Rangers (left) vies with Jake Doyle-Hayes during the Scottish Leagues Cup semifinal won by Hibs. In the other semi, Celtic defeated Saints. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images) /

And, breathe. What a weekend.

In a dramatic couple of days at the national stadium; Celtic and Hibs booked their places in next month’s Premier Sports Cup Final at the expense of holders St. Johnstone and last season’s quarterfinalists Rangers.

Both ties offered plenty of sub-narratives in an eventful week for Scottish football.

Celtic, buoyed by recent form, were facing a St. Johnstone outfit unbeaten in their last 11 domestic knockout matches. Sunday’s fixture saw Hibernian, reeling from four consecutive SPL losses, play a Rangers side unbeaten in eight.

However, it’s been a particularly turbulent week for the Ibrox club. Steven Gerrard’s abrupt exit has invited questions about the club’s ability to retain its best talent; and perhaps served as another reminder to Scotland’s big two that the EPL’s financial juggernaut is a more attractive proposition than club status and reputation. The rapid acquisition of fan favourite Giovanni Van Bronckhorst however offered significant light at the end of a particularly dark tunnel.

Celtic overcome disciplined Saints

The two semifinals, pulsating and engrossing from kick-off, certainly lived up to the billing.

Saturday evening’s installment delivered plenty of raucousness, even if goalmouth action did come at a premium.

Pre-kick-off, Celts and Saints alike applauded one of football’s greatest – wee Bertie Auld. The Parkhead club resolved to mark Auld’s passing by reaching the final of a competition he had won on four occasions; the first of which coming in the same campaign that would conclude in him lifting the European Cup.

Calderwood’s men set up in typically stoic and robust fashion, a platform which delivered so much success last year. Despite a lively start from Celtic, St. Johnstone restricted the Glasgow side to a handful of half-chances. They did however struggle to contain Jota, a winger in scintillating form. At one stage, he delivered a ‘rabona’ cross that was as audacious as it was a barometer of his current confidence. He looked the most likely in a barnstorming start to proceedings.

The Saints offered little threat going forward. Their best sight at goal came midway through the half; O’Halloran’s persistence nearly paying off as a hurried Joe Hart clearance ricocheted back off the frontman and trickled agonizingly wide.  Celtic’s dominance of possession only carved out a couple of chances; Turnbull fired over and McGregor nearly converted close to the break, but it was scant reward for their efforts.

The second half materialised into a mirror-image of the first; Celtic probed, St. Johnstone defended, before the latter gradually gained a foot-hold. However, unlike their exploits in last season’s competition, the Saints were noticeably blunt in attack. Chris Kane huffed and puffed but provided little inspiration. Shaun Rooney, so devastating last campaign, failed to provide a credible threat. The Perth side failed to register a single corner throughout the 90; a perfect illustration of their lack of penetration.

Celtic would score the game’s only goal in a blaze of activity midway through the second half. First, in tribute to icon Auld, Celtic’s ultras delivered a pyrotechnic display worthy of a true great, before Forrest, four minutes after coming off the bench, lashed home a right-footed effort to grab his team a deserved victory and send the green half of Hampden into raptures.

It was a pleasing afternoon for Postecoglou who once again saw resilience and grit from his team, and consolidates his early success with progression to the first domestic showpiece of the season. As for St. Johnstone, they bow out with heads held high and integrity still intact.

Saints’ boss Calderwood spoke to BBC Sport Scotland after the game:

"“Overall, very proud of what we tried to achieve and the way we went about our business. They defended their trophy with pride and courage and that’s all I can ask from them.”"

Boyle steals the show

If Saturday’s encounter provided the starter, then Sunday’s entertainment duly delivered a main course.

Pre-match exchanges were rife with intrigue; Jack Ross seemed bullish in his optimism, despite his team’s form and recent record against Rangers. Van Bronckhorst, on the other hand, was conspicuous by his touchline absence – taking seat amongst the Hampden hospitality as opposed to the Rangers dugout. After nine minutes, he may have regretted his decision.

For Boyle, in the opening strike of an incredible first-half hat-trick, stabbed home after an early corner produced chaos in the Rangers 6-yard box. The Australian has been in exceptional form this season, and, when Nisbitt released him again down the right flank 11 minutes later, he unleashed a rasping drive past the despairing Alan McGregor.

It was a shocking start for a Rangers side who had come accustomed to conceding first in recent weeks; incredibly losing the opening goal on their previous six outings. However, this was set to become emphatically worse. Steven Davis clumsily bundled Martin Boyle over inside the box; the latter dusted himself down to convert the resultant penalty. Boyle had the match ball in his grasp. Hibs boss Ross, whose last Hampden appearance against Rangers came in a playing capacity whilst appearing for St. Mirren in a 1-0 defeat, had his side in a position even the most ardent of Hibees couldn’t have foreseen.

Unsurprisingly, roared on by a partisan crowd conveying a mixture of outrage and boisterous encouragement, Rangers came back fighting. Less than two minutes after Boyle sealed his hat-trick, Scott Arfield, who offered plenty of willing enterprise on the day, pulled one back. Ryan Porteous’ scuffed clearance broke kindly to the Canadian midfielder; who slotted neatly into the bottom left-hand corner. Rangers had a foothold.

However, if the first half was an unpredictable, erratic affair, then the second was a lesson in game management and composure by an Edinburgh side not exactly famed for defensive restraint.

Rangers’ advances were quashed in a rear-guard masterclass, limited to a smattering of snap shots and long-range efforts. There were one or two brief heart-in-mouth moments; Goldson fired over a glorious chance from 7 yards out and, perhaps inducing substantial panic in various pubs & clubs across north Edinburgh, goalkeeper Macey poorly controlled a pacey back-pass from ex-Rangers defender Darren McGregor, subsequently watching the ball come off his near post and bounce away from goal. A huge slice of luck.

This episode was representative of each side’s afternoon – quite simply, it was Hibs’ day. Rangers, despite all their ball retention and (largely ineffective) attacking endeavour, just couldn’t convert their dominance into threatening attempts on goal. Conversely, Hibs were ultra-productive and extremely clinical; three shots on target delivered three goals for the Easter Road outfit.

No conclusions drawn, but some indication offered

So, what has this weekend taught us? Although tempting to do so, one should not infer too many conclusions from one-off matches, particular in knockout contexts.

This won’t necessarily set Rangers on a tangent away from their pre-season objectives, neither does it confirm that the impact of Gerrard’s exit won’t influence future short-term results. Van Bronckhorst will be concerned, but also well aware that the same set of players were unrelenting in last season’s march towards the title.

For Celtic, a blend of attacking dynamism mixed with more solidity at the back will be a source of huge encouragement to the Parkhead faithful.

St. Johnstone and Hibs, for contrasting reasons, will harbour a sense of pride and achievement come Monday morning. It’s the end of an unprecedented domestic cup run for the Saints, and Hibs will be thoroughly delighted with their afternoon’s work.

The winter break feels like the next opportune moment to assess the landscape. For now, all four sides will re-group and work out how to navigate a congested run of fixtures up to the New Year.

Come the aftermath, there was one last final pill for the Rangers faithful to swallow. Ryan Porteus, when asked by BT Sport how he felt after the game, responded in typically savage fashion:

"‘I’m happy. Do I look happy? Don’t ask me silly questions.”"

Next. Hibs get quadruple boost prior to Hampden semifinal. dark

I wonder who he was referring to …