Old Firm Both Without Key Players For Sunday But Celtic Will Come Out On Top

The beckoning spaces of Hampden Park and Murrayfield will host the Betfred Scottish League Cup semi-finals on Sunday but, as far as the Old Firm are concerned, a dearth of strikers threatens their ability to exploit the broad acres. Rangers’ top scorer, Alfredo Morelos – with 12 goals to his credit this season – is suspended and Kyle Lafferty is cup-tied, which should hearten the Aberdeen fans who will make the trek to Glasgow hoping for an improvement in their team’s recent performances against the Ibrox side.

At Murrayfield, meanwhile, Leigh Griffiths will not feature against a Hearts side who have already beaten the holders in the league at nearby Tynecastle. In happier circumstances Griffiths, a former Hibs player and supporter, would relish playing against the other Edinburgh club but the 29-year-old has not been in action since he was substituted in Celtic’s 6-0 rout of St Johnstone earlier this month.

Griffiths withdrew from the Scotland squad for the Nations League tie in Israel and the home friendly against Portugal and was said by the Celtic manager, Brendan Rodgers, to be suffering from an unidentified illness as well as from injury concerns.

Social media has been rife with rumours this week to the effect that Griffiths has gone AWOL from Celtic training, but Rodgers dismissed the chatter as ‘tittle tattle’, although whatever is keeping the player at home remains unspecified. “There’s no further update at the moment,” Rodgers said. “He’s obviously had issues and problems through injury and whatever.

“He’s unavailable and we continue to monitor it and see where’s he at. There has been regular communication with the medical team. I spoke to him the other day, on the way back from Murrayfield.

“He’s in regular communication with Tim (Williamson), our head physiotherapist, so it’s ongoing, his treatment for his injury and whatnot. He’s an important member of our squad. We’ve got one fit striker, a young striker, at the moment, so hopefully we can get Leigh back fit and well very soon.”

The young striker mentioned by Rodgers is Odsonne Edouard (20), who has scored eight times from 17 appearances, including a double in last week’s 4-2 victory over Hibernian, but Hearts will be equally wary of the threats posed by James Forrest, who scored four in 30 minutes against St Johnstone, and Tom Rogic, if the Australian overcomes concern about a recurring knee problem.

Both sets of fans have responded to the singular occurrence of a football semi-final at the home of Scottish rugby and it is likely that the Murrayfield crowd will be close to capacity, allowing for segregation arrangements for a 50/50 crowd. “I’m really looking forward to it,” said Craig Levein, the Hearts manager. “It’s the biggest match of our season so far and the very nature of where it is and the size of the crowd will make it a truly fantastic experience for everybody.

“We have not had any games in front of 60,000 people or over that. The biggest difference this season is that we have a lot of hungry players who, not matter the occasion, just want to go out and do well.

“We’ve also got a lot of older heads who have been there and done it, who know what to expect, know what it takes – and hopefully that will bring a calmness for us.”

Assuming that the 1.30pm kick-off accommodates all eventualities, including extra time and a penalty spot decider, if required, attention will then switch to Hampden for the 4.30 pm start between Aberdeen and Rangers. For the past four years Aberdeen have done the heavy lifting in producing a consistent challenge to Celtic, although the disparity of resources between the clubs worked to the latter’s advantage.

The Dons’ league form has been less consistent this season but a cup final appearance would represent continuity. The bookies, though, fancy Rangers to progress, not that their opinion troubles Derek McInnes.

“Steven Gerrard’s done a great job there and really imposed himself on the club,” said the Aberdeen manager. “They’ve got a better squad, clearly, but we feel there are big performances in us and for another cup final appearance and chance at silverware, we’re going to have to deliver not just in possession and out of possession but also that mentality to get the job done.”

McInnes is aided by the return after suspension of Scott McKenna, although which Rangers forwards the central defender will be revealed only when the team lines appear. “Wait and see. Kick-off is at half 4, it is pretty soon – you won’t have to wait too long,” Gerrard said.

“We have a game plan. We have enough quality on the pitch to win the game, if we max out and hit the heights.”

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