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Home Sport Football

NI marvels Brendan and Stephen have got cup glory in sight

 

By Julian Taylor

Irrespective of tomorrow's Betfred Scottish League Cup final outcome, the architect of glory will be embossed with an unmistakeable Northern Irish flavour.

Two managers - originating from the Glens of Antrim and Lagan Valley respectively - and their contrasting profiles will roll into Hampden Park seeking validation.

There is no question that Celtic boss Brendan Rodgers savours what continues to be an absurdly gilded time in Scottish football.

Meanwhile, Stephen Robinson, the Motherwell gaffer, has shaped a team on a shoestring that has potential to dislodge the holders' grip on the trophy.

The magnificent 64-game unbeaten run is pristine proof of Rodgers' qualities of organisation and, in particular, man-management at Parkhead as the Celts continue to display a thirst for dominating the domestic scene. Last season's treble was fully-deserved and a prime example of why largest individual shareholder Dermot Desmond chose to pay his leading man an estimated £1m-a-year salary.

Carnlough native Rodgers tends to get his own way. It's just as well for a man of no little ego who possesses a sense of unfinished business in management.

But those ambitions of returning to the higher echelons of the English game, or indeed, a top club abroad, are stalling in the wake of another dismal week of acute travel sickness.

"The more experienced and the older I get in management, I learn to listen less to what people will say and just focus on what we're trying to do here over the longer term," he said.

His myopia is probably admirable to the unquestioning. However, the fact of the matter is Celtic's latest Champions League pummelling cannot be whitewashed, even in the context of an approaching cup final, which is certainly an ideal occasion for a positive rebound.

They may be dominant in Scotland and that status is padlocked for the foreseeable future, but the Bhoys were wretched against Paris Saint-Germain.

A 7-1 dismantling in the Parc des Princes is another clip of his wings in a struggle to come to terms with Europe's elite competition, whether it be at Parkhead or previously with Liverpool.

A basic analysis of the disparity of resources between the world's richest club and Celtic is too simplistic. For it was not an isolated evening of pain for a Rodgers-led Celtic where even the watching French media appeared surprised at the manner of the Scots' capitulation.

Such defeats are threatening to become a millstone of Rodgers' plainly disappointing work in an area where you are judged above all. He must now actually welcome the prospect of this Hampden showdown: a reassuring environment where a 17th League Cup is in sight.

The Ulsterman was on the verge of losing his cool when questioned about his errant defence against Neymar, Edison Cavani and Kylian Mbappe, yet, ironically, these humiliations are possibly key to his continued stay in Glasgow. How can potential suitors down south be impressed with another pasting abroad?

Rodgers appears to be the go-to guy for answers to the country's difficulties of producing top club and national teams, where the hoi polloi are supposed to hang on to his every word. Quite rightly, his concern is Celtic and Celtic only, and the defence of the Bhoys' treble is paramount.

However, 0-7 in Barcelona, 0-5 against Bayern Munich and Wednesday's error-strewn slump against PSG, all in under 14 months on Rodgers' watch reflect badly on a manager who still holds wider ambitions.

It is, therefore, instructive to recall that Neil Lennon enjoyed a superior tilt with Celtic at the Champions League and he ended up struggling at Bolton Wanderers, before a much better time now at Hibernian. In the long-range lens of Rodgers' dreams he is already conscious of observers elsewhere, who are more open in their criticism than those at home. "They (Celtic supporters) worship the ground that this man walks on at the moment, but cut the nonsense. They were an embarrassment," said ex-Celt Craig Burley of the PSG defeat.

Tomorrow, the manager will regain his poise and hope his much-criticised defence - including goalkeeper Craig Gordon, who was particularly poor in Paris - can fend off a hard-working Motherwell outfit, led by the robustly underrated striker, Louis Moult. Celtic must spend in January if they are to develop in expected Europa League football.

The Scottish Champions are long-proven to be equipped to progress from chastisements.

Mental strength is probably the single, major attribute which has maintained the unbeaten run, when perhaps vulnerability could have surfaced. The exciting 4-2 victory over Hibernian in October's League Cup semi-final following a 3-0 defeat at Bayern Munich and, recalling last term, beating Aberdeen comfortably just four days after losing at home to Barcelona, represents an abundance of fibre.

You suppose, then, that Celtic are ready for whatever Robinson has in store.

Motherwell sit fifth in the Premiership, just two points behind Rangers. While that statistic has a whiff of faint praise, it's clear Robinson is maximising what he has at Fir Park. In Moult, the Steelmen have the one significant player capable of unsettling Celtic's rearguard.

If passed fit, Nir Bitton is likely to have a tricky afternoon containing a forward who boasts an astonishing 50 goals in 95 appearances. An industrious operator, who dumped Rangers out of the semi-final, Moult epitomises Robinson's construction of a team unafraid of physical battle.

Aberdeen were on the receiving end of a 3-0 defeat by Well in the quarter-final too, so Celtic cannot make assumptions.

Robinson has, naturally, been under the media spotlight all week. Nevertheless the 42-year-old is not one for outlandish statements, a wise strategy ahead of facing the cup holders.

The glare of Hampden itself is unlikely to intimidate the Lisburn man, considering his involvement as Michael O'Neill's assistant with Northern Ireland during the Euro 2016 qualifiers.

Celtic are, of course, far richer in resources than the men from Lanarkshire.

And while Leigh Griffiths and Moussa Dembele tend to provide spark, Rodgers will, again, trust his experienced figures to provide high voltage at the end of a draining spell of unusually hard questioning.

Celtic vs Motherwell

Scottish League Cup

Hampden Park, Tomorrow, 3pm

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