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Focused Hoops can topple the Terrors


Hoops-NAFTER three defeats in a row at Scotland’s national stadium, much hot air has been blown about Celtic’s supposed Hampden hoodoo.

But if games are decided on hexes, then take note: Celtic’s recent slip-ups at Hampden are nothing compared to the sign the Hoops have over this Sunday’s Scottish Cup semi-final opponents Dundee United.

Since the start of the 1998/99 season, when the top flight became the Scottish Premier League, the Hoops have faced the Terrors 60 times in all competitions, winning 46, drawing 11 and losing just three.

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Frightening reading indeed for Arabs, considering their team have been regular challengers for third spot in the SPL in recent years.

Still, Jackie McNamara’s side will be buoyed by the fact the Hoops go into the game seeking their first win at Hampden in four attempts. Celtic’s last success was in January last year, when they beat Falkirk 3-1 in the League Cup semi-final.

However they went on to lose to Kilmarnock in the final and to Hearts in the Scottish Cup semi-final, while St Mirren beat the Hoops 3-2 in this season’s League Cup last four.

It is this run that has led to spurious claims that Celtic have difficulty performing at the national stadium — a claim that overlooks the fact that, win or lose, five appearances in cup semi-finals/finals at Hampden in just two seasons is a significant achievement for any club.

Similarly, four Scottish Cup and two League Cup successes in the last decade (as well as three losing final appearances in the latter competition) are not signs of a team averse to tasting success at the ground.

However the performance in the most recent loss to St Mirren smacked of a team turning up thinking the game was in the bag… of a team lacking serious competition for the SPL title and also having one eye arrogantly turned to a forthcoming tie with Juventus.

A determined St Mirren made them pay the ultimate price. Celtic will need to drop the attitude, regain their focus and respect the opposition if they want to end their poor run at Hampden and continue their fine form against Dundee United.

The Tannadice side will be on a high after their 1-0 injury-time win at the weekend over Aberdeen, which — coupled with Kilmarnock’s loss to Dundee — guaranteed a top six finish. Former Celtic star McNamara has instilled a resolve into the side since taking over in February.

His reign got off to a winning start with a 3-0 Scottish Cup fifth round win over The Rangers, which was the Terrors’ first home win since August. That was followed up with a 3-1 victory over Hearts.

Although they still have the second worst defence in the league after bottom side and city rivals Dundee, McNamara has made United difficult to beat, losing only one of his 11 games in charge — a 6-2 Celtic Park in the SPL no less.

Crocked star Johnny Russell faces a race against time to be fit for the tie, having fractured his fibula against Inverness in February. With 20 goals this season and just behind Gary Hooper in the SPL scoring charts, his absence will be a blow to United’s hopes of progressing to the final.

Their other key man up front is Jon Daly, part of a significant Irish contingent at Tannadice which includes Sean Dillon, Gavin Gunning, Willo Flood and Richie Ryan as well as emerging defender Patrick Barrett from Waterford.

Daly enjoyed a good goal-scoring run mid-season but has struggled to find the net recently, having not scored since the cup win over The Rangers, who have subsequently been linked with the striker.

Celtic meanwhile should be more focused than their last trip to Hampden. They no longer have the distraction of the Champions League which, while no doubt the biggest competition we were involved in, resulted in some players arrogantly treating domestic competitions with less importance and respect.

That apathy accounted for our League Cup exit, so Sunday’s game represents our last chance of cup success this season. By this weekend the players should be over last Saturday’s damp squib, when the SPL title party was put on hold by James McFadden’s late equaliser for Motherwell.

With the post-split league fixtures not under way until April 20, the Hoops should be fully focused on the challenge of United.

However Neil Lennon’s side have been erratic since the Juventus tie. Following the 3-0 first-leg home loss to the Italians, Celtic have dropped 10 points in eight SPL games (1.25 per game).

By contrast they dropped just 20 in the previous 25 SPL fixtures (0.8 per game). Also worrying is the number of goals we have leaked recently (three each against Ross County and Aberdeen last month), with Saturday’s clean sheet against Hibs only our second in the last 12 games. Hopefully we can build on that this weekend.

With Gary Hooper off the boil having scored only three goals since the transfer window closed, Kris Commons is the player in form we will look to for goals.

The classy midfielder scored twice against Hibs on Saturday and is back to his best after a poor season last term. After hitting only one goal last season, he has 17 this year, justifying Lennon’s decision to keep faith in him.

It’ll be testing against a resurgent United, but if key man Russell fails to prove his fitness, a focused Celtic should have enough to put to bed claims they bottle it at Hampden and progress to the decider against either Hibs or Falkirk on May 26.

 

Kick-off 12.45pm Sunday 14 April, live on Sky Sports 2

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Gerard Donaghy

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