With less than 72 hours until the crucial clash with Rangers you can be pretty sure that Ange Postecoglou already knows exactly who’ll be starting in Saturday’s lunchtime kick off.
And as open and engaging as he is in his press conference he rarely gives anything away in terms of team selection, and we don’t expect it to be any different this time around.
The manager’s hand was forced to an extent in Dingwall at the weekend, with the absence of Reo Hatate, Arron Mooy and Liel Abada leading to a slight shuffling of the pack.
And across 98 minutes or so at the Global Energy Stadium a handful of fringe players provided a timely reminder of just what they can offer at this vital stage of the season.
Tomoki Iwata was confident and assured in the No.6 role, Oh once again proved to be a handful in his latest cameo appearance, and as is his way Sead Haksabanovic continued to provide glimpses of the undoubted skill he possesses.
But have either of them done enough to warrant a start on what’s set to be one of the most important games of the season?
Time For Tomoki?
In nearly two years of Ange Postecoglou’s Celtic we’ve rarely seen skipper Callum McGregor deployed anywhere else than as the defensive anchor in midfield.
All the more surprising then that he was nudged further forward in the midfield on Sunday to allow January signing Tomoki Iwata to take on that role.
Injuries to Reo Hatate and Arron Mooy will of course have played a part in that decision, but the option of McGregor – O’Riley – Turnbull was available to the manager and it’s interesting that he chose to disrupt his midfield in such a way just 6 days ahead of such a vital game.
Whilst Iwata received plaudits for his performance, and many supporters were delighted to see the 25 year old make his first start for the club, the “No.6” is a role in which McGregor has excelled under Ange.
The expectation is that the captain will start there once again on Saturday, but Iwata has now shown more than enough to convince us that he’s capable if required.
With the undoubted natural ability he possesses Sead Haksabanovic would be knocking at the door for a regular start at most clubs of Celtic’s level.
That he isn’t regularly featured in Ange’s first XI at this moment in time is perhaps more of a reflection on the players currently holding down the positions rather than of Haksabanovic himself.
Like Haksabanovic, Jota is one of Celtic’s most gifted talents and with goals this season against Rangers, Real Madrid and RB Leipzig he’s proven that he’s the man for the big occasion.
Expect the Portuguese star to start once again on Celtic’s right wing.
On the opposite wing is a player who, with merit, has become one of the manager’s go to guys.
When the big games come calling, Daizen Maeda – who previously played under Ange at Yokohama F Marinos – is someone who almost always gets the nod from the manager.
A goalscorer and key player for Japan in the Qatar World Cup he returned to the fold full of confidence and provides so much for the team in both an attacking and defensive sense.
Aside from his offensive intent he’ll be tasked with pinning back Rangers captain James Tavernier in the right back slot and nullifying any threat that may come from that side of the pitch.
You can see just how challenging it currently is for Haksabanovic – or any other winger – to break into the line-up.
For now Haksabanovic’s skillset will likely be kept in reserve during the first 45 minutes, but the good money would be on the Montenegrin entering the fray with around half an hour to play where he’ll be given the opportunity to dazzle a suspect Rangers defence.
Oh To Steal The Show?
In Oh’s 11 appearances since joining Celtic in January the South Korean has started just once – so it would seem unusual that there’s some noise amongst supporters keen to see him given a start against Rangers.
Especially when his inclusion could only really come at the expense of Kyogo Furuhsashi.
That’s 26 goal top scorer, Kyogo Furuhashi.
It would be an incredible move if Ange went with Oh over the Japanese striker but it’s a sign of growing confidence in his recent performances that a start in a game of this magnitude is even being suggested.
At just 21 years of age (he’ll be 22 next Wednesday) Oh has time on his side and though he’ll have his part to play in the remainder of this season it would seem likely that we’ll see the best of him in the Hoops next season and beyond.
Again though, like Haksabanovic, there’s a part for him to play on Saturday and the prospect of the young powerhouse coming on for the closing stages of the game won’t be a welcome one for Connor Goldson and Co.
Strength In Depth
Beyond the three players highlighted here there are others who will be ready to step into the action if required on the day.
Alexandro Bernabei gave a reminder of why the club paid £3.5M for him in the summer with a stunning strike to seal the points against Ross County and he’s getting ever closer to providing a genuine challenge to Greg Taylor at left back.
David Turnbull also played his part in the Highlands and many will be hoping he can return to the kind of form he showed in his first season in the Hoops.
The squad is in such a healthy shape at this moment in time that there’s a real confidence amongst supporters that whatever eleven are tasked with starting the game, they’ll be more than capable of securing the result that in turn would all but secure a second Scottish Premiership title for the manager.
Like everyone else we’ll find out who those men are at around quarter past eleven on Sunday morning.
The clock is ticking!
Tune in to the latest episode of The Celtic Exchange Weekly as we discuss Ange’s Derby Day Decisions, The Mikey J Questions, Memories of The Holy Goalie & Much More!
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