CELTIC are seeking to complete the first part of a domestic treble when facing Dundee United in the 2015 QTS Scottish League Cup Final.
Sunday’s showpiece at Hampden Park (KO 3pm, live on BBC Scotland) will be the second of four consecutive meetings between the two Premiership sides – separated by three places and 17 points in the table – in the space of a fortnight.
Both are still challenging on three fronts after last weekend’s controversial Scottish Cup quarter-final, which saw three red cards and two penalties, ended in a draw.
The replay will be held on Wednesday night at Celtic Park, which is also the stage for their league encounter three days later.
After last Sunday’s battle at Tannadice, the war of words continued thereafter with both managers disagreeing over refereeing decisions.
Celtic boss Ronny Deila accused Dundee United’s Aiden Connolly of diving to win a penalty and called for the forward to be banned retrospectively – a view shared by his skipper Scott Brown, who also blamed United’s Nadir Ciftci for deliberately kicking him in the head.
Opposite number Jackie McNamara believed Brown should have been sent off for a robust tackle on Ciftci and felt the melee which saw his midfielder Paul Paton dismissed would not have ensued if the initial challenge from Virgil van Dijk, who was shown a red card, was dealt with quickly.
Celtic’s van Dijk and United’s Paton, who was wrongly sent off instead of team-mate Calum Butcher in a case of mistaken identity, have since both been cleared to play in the final after their clubs appealed against their red cards.
By virtue of loopholes in the Scottish FA rules, defender Butcher has surprisingly received no punishment for his part in the incident.
Ciftci was also ordered to serve a two-match ban but the club won their appeal on Thursday meaning the Turk can play in the Scottish Cup replay – although United’s 12-goal top scorer is already suspended for Sunday’s final after picking up a yellow card in the semis.
The Tangerines came from behind to knock out holders Aberdeen last month and reach their fourth major cup final in the past decade, however, they will not have fond memories of the last one, losing to Tayside neighbours St Johnstone in last season’s Scottish Cup at Parkhead.
Celtic, meanwhile, comfortably saw off Glaswegian adversaries Rangers in the first Old Firm derby for three years in their semi-final.
The 69th League Cup Final represents an opportunity for both managers to gain their first silverware at their respective clubs.
United’s McNamara, who was appointed at the end of January 2013, believes a win for his side would be a “massive upset” but the club will be desperate to end a five-year wait for silverware since lifting the Scottish Cup in 2010.
For Celtic, it is a first domestic final in charge for Deila since replacing Neil Lennon last summer and the Norwegian harbours genuine hope that the Hoops can clinch a first treble since 2000-01 and only the fourth in their 127-year history.
His fellow countryman – SPFL’s February player of the month Stefan Johansen – is also just as hopeful that the League Cup can be the start of a clean sweep this season.
The Bhoys midfielder – who was praised by Deila this week for a remarkable turnaround in his career – has been inspirational of late in an advanced position, coinciding in Celtic’s upturn in form.
Despite failing to win their last two, the league leaders had gone 11 domestic games unbeaten before St Johnstone prevented them going nine points clear last week.
Celtic, who thumped six past Dundee United in the second week of the season, narrowly lost a thriller at Tannadice back in December.
But the response has been emphatic with their Europa League exit to Inter Milan not hindering their progress much, as emphasised by the recent thumping of nearest title challengers Aberdeen.
Deila has won over plenty of critics – former Hoops striker John Hartson being one of them – but the 39-year-old’s aim this weekend is to achieve something his predecessor didn’t.
The League Cup has eluded the Hoops for six years when a 2-0 extra-time victory over Rangers under Gordon Strachan’s stewardship in 2009 saw them lift the trophy for the 14th time – still some way behind the Gers’ record haul of 27.
Since then, the competition has had three different names and the Hoops have experienced heartbreak, regret and humiliation in equal measure against the likes of Morton, Ross County, St Mirren and Kilmarnock in their last appearance in the final in 2012.
Two-time winners Dundee United have suffered similar woe in recent times since their back-to-back triumphs in 1980 and 1981.
The Tangerines have been runners-up on four occasions, including most recently in 2008 when losing 3-2 on penalties to Rangers in their last final appearance after a 2-2 draw.
United have hit a stumbling block and cannot seem to buy a win at the moment, with no victory in five since a cup stroll at Stranraer, as the pre-Christmas success over the champions seems like a distant memory.
That landmark result, their only win over Celtic in the last 11 attempts, can act as a useful reminder to McNamara’s men of their capabilities.
It will be the first time the sides will face each other at Hampden for two years since Celtic came out on top in a topsy-turvy Scottish Cup semi-final which was settled by the odd goal in seven following an additional half-an-hour.
A similar contest would certainly appease the neutrals and indeed supporters of both clubs, with Celtic being allocated 25,000 tickets while United had 15,000 and took up the option of an additional 3,000.
With both sides adopting attractive styles of play and favouring possession as nine tenths of the law, it should serve up a classic given that the Hampden pitch was re-laid following justifiable criticism of the national stadium’s surface last month.
Last weekend’s ill-tempered cup tie aside, there is no love lost between the two clubs at present with the acrimony emerging after the sales of star duo Gary Mackay-Steven and Stuart Armstrong by United on January deadline day – something chairman Stephen Thompson admitted was wrong from a football perspective.
Despite suggestions that the tempestuous nature of the Tannadice clash will have no bearing on the final from United skipper Sean Dillon and others, the proof as they say will be in the pudding.
But, with the first domestic prize of the Scottish season on offer, the main question to ask is will it be green and white or tangerine on the cup by the end of Sunday afternoon?
ROUTE TO THE FINAL:
Third Round 1-0 win v Dundee (H)
Quarter-Final 3-3 draw v Hibernian (A) * won 7-6 on penalties
Semi-Final 2-1 win v Aberdeen (Hampden Park)
Third Round 3-0 win v Hearts (H)
Quarter-Final 6-0 win v Partick Thistle (H)
Semi-Final 2-0 win v Rangers (Hampden Park)
Anthony Stokes has scored eight goals in his last 10 appearances against Dundee United and has 18 career goals against them in total (more than against any other side).
Stefan Johansen has netted five times in his last seven domestic outings for Celtic.
Aidan Connolly has two goals in 14 appearances this season with the former Queen’s Park starlet making his seventh start for the club against Celtic last weekend.
Former Inverness and Hibernian midfielder John Rankin will be looking to win the first silverware of his career with United this weekend at the age of 31.
It is Celtic’s 30th appearance in the League Cup Final – they have lost on their last two (v Kilmarnock in 2012 and Rangers in 2011) while Dundee United are in their seventh final.
It is the first time the sides have met in a major final since 2005 when Alan Thompson scored the only goal in the Scottish Cup Final for Celtic at Hampden.
They have only met once before in a League Cup Final with Celtic running out 3-0 winners back in 1998.
Dundee United’s Paul Paton has been cleared to play after the midfielder’s ban was repealed following his sending-off for mistaken identity in last Sunday’s Scottish Cup last-eight tie.
Paul Dixon is also eligible to play after the on-loan Huddersfield left-back was dismissed at Tannadice for denying Leigh Griffiths a goal with the use of his arm.
Nadir Ciftci is already banned for receiving two yellow cards in the competition following his booking in the semi-final win over Aberdeen therefore one of Henri Anier or Mario Bilate is likely to deputise.
Callum Morris – who scored the equaliser against the Dons at Hampden – has declared himself fit following a thigh injury which has kept the ex-Dunfermline defender out since February 14.
Celtic have Virgil van Dijk available after the Dutch centre-back had his red card overturned.
Stefan Johansen – who will sit out the midweek cup replay suspended – is likely to start in a forward position with defensive midfielders Scott Brown and Nir Biton protecting the back four.
Kris Commons is also set to return to the side after being ruled out through injury last weekend.
Adam Matthews should be fit enough to start at right-back while Leigh Griffiths should get the nod over John Guidetti to lead the line.
Former United duo Stuart Armstrong and Gary Mackay-Steven are cup-tied having played for the Tangerines earlier in the competition.
LAST 10 LEAGUE CUP FINAL WINNERS:
2014: Aberdeen (beat Inverness CT on penalties after goalless draw)
2013: St Mirren (came from behind to beat Hearts 3-2)
2012: Kilmarnock (scored late winner to defeat Celtic 1-0)
2011: Rangers (beat Celtic 2-1 after extra-time)
2010: Rangers (the nine-man Gers edge past St Mirren 1-0)
2009: Celtic (beat Rangers 2-0 after extra time)
2008: Rangers (win on penalties against Dundee United after 2-2 draw)
2007: Hibernian (thump Kilmarnock 5-1)
2006: Celtic (beat Dunfermline Athletic 3-0)
2005: Rangers (beat Motherwell 5-1)
Referee: Bobby Madden
Assistant referees: Stephen Mitchell and Graeme Leslie
Fourth Official: Kevin Clancy