Celtic v Hearts preview: MacLean returns from suspension, can Hearts keep their lead?

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Hearts travel to Celtic on Saturday in what is a top-of-the-table clash in the Ladbrokes Premiership.

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The two sides met each other last weekend in the Betfred Cup semi-final. Picture: SNS

The two sides met each other last weekend in the Betfred Cup semi-final. Picture: SNS

Brendan Rodgers’ men were able to reduce the gap at the top to four points during the week as they defeated Dundee 5-0 away from home, while Hearts were held by rivals Hibs in a derby that made headlines for all the wrong reasons.

They’ll have the chance to cut it to just one point and will fancy their chances after bouncing back from an indifferent start to the season with six consecutive wins in domestic football.

One of those victories was the Betfred Cup semi-final triumph over Hearts at Murrayfield last Sunday. The Tynecastle side were severely hamstrung by a slew of recent injuries to important players, the latest of which was Steven Naismith who’ll now miss up to eight weeks after undergoing knee surgery to fix an injury sustained in the 3-0 loss.

Craig Levein will have to return to the drawing board to suss out a way to cause Celtic problems, though he still has plenty of quality options in the side as the hefty summer recruitment drive continues to pay dividends.

He’ll be buoyed by the return of Steven MacLean following suspension. Though the striker was given a two-match ban for grabbing Eboue Kouassi’s genitals, the second game doesn’t apply until next year’s Betfred Cup.

Injuries / suspensions / unavailable

Celtic - The reigning champions learned on Friday that both Kouassi (who limped off in the Betfred Cup semi-final) and summer signing Daniel Arzani are likely to miss the rest of the season after suffering knee ligament damage. Olivier Ntcham returns to the squad after being forced out of the last clash between the teams, though it comes too early for midfielder Youssouf Mulumbu. Jozo Simunovic, Cristian Gamboa, Scott Brown and Leigh Griffiths remain out with various ailments.

Hearts - Michael Smith and Demetri Mitchell are both carrying strains but are expected to play. Apart from that there are no fresh injury concerns for a Hearts squad that’s been depleted by the long-term losses of Christophe Berra (hamstring), John Souttar (hip), Uche Ikpeazu (foot), Jamie Brandon and Steven Naismith (both knee).

Magic number

18 - the number of goals scored by Celtic in their past four domestic games. The Hearts defence has its work cut out for it.

Key battle

Centre-back Jimmy Dunne played very well against Celtic in the Betfred Cup semi-final - and Hearts still lost 3-0. The Irishman and partner Clevid Dikamona will need to be at their absolute best again to try and stop their opponents from blowing them away at Parkhead, with leading attacker Odsonne Edouard a particular threat. However, as there are numerous dangers in the home side’s attack, the central defensive duo will need to receive more help from the players around them than they did last Sunday.

Key stats

While Hearts have defeated Celtic twice in the last five meetings, you have to go back over nine years (and 15 matches) for the last time the Gorgie Road side emerged victorious from a trip to Parkhead. Michael Stewart netted the only goal of the game as Csaba Laszlo’s side dumped their hosts out of the League Cup in October 2009.

Referee

John Beaton took charge of Hearts 1-0 win over Celtic at the beginning of this season and he’s been handed the responsibility of a meeting between these two teams once again. He was also the referee for Hearts’ 3-1 defeat to Rangers, their only league loss thus far, and officiated Celtic’s narrow Betfred Cup quarter-final victory over St Johnstone.

Possible teams

Celtic: Gordon; Lustig, Benkovic, Boyata, Tierney; Forrest, McGregor, Rogic, Sinclair; Christie; Edouard. Subs from: Bain, Hendry, Ntcham, Hayes, Izaguirre, Johnston, Morgan, Ralston.

Hearts: Zlamal; Smith, Dikamona, Dunne, Garuccio; Morrison, Djoum, Haring, Lee, Mitchell; MacLean. Subs from: Doyle, Hughes, Godinho, Cochrane, Bozanic, Clare, Mulraney, Amankwaa, McDonald, Wighton.