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Andy Skinner: Highland clubs must beat the best in quest for more cup glory

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Both Highland clubs had to beat the best to fulfill their dreams of cup glory in recent seasons, and they will need to repeat the feat in order to stay in contention for more silverware this year.

Caley Thistle and Ross County both go into their Scottish Cup last-16 ties as underdogs, with Inverness bottom of the Premiership ahead of their game against Celtic at Parkhead, and the Staggies facing an Aberdeen side buoyed by an excellent recent run of form.

The prize for both is a place in the quarter-finals of the competition, where the prospect of a Hampden outing really begins to come into sight. Two lower league sides are guaranteed to be in the hat for Sunday’s draw, and others fancy their chances of a shock this weekend.

All very well, but Caley Jags and County certainly have their work cut out before they can even think that far ahead. Inverness, in particular, face a daunting task against a domestically unbeaten Hoops side currently 27 points clear at the top of the Premiership.

It is a matter of when, not if, the league title is wrapped up, meaning Saturday’s fixture against Inverness is the first of four matches standing in the way of a domestic treble in Brendan Rodgers’ first season in Glasgow.

Celtic were in the same position two years ago when Ronny Deila dared to dream of a clean sweep ahead of their Scottish Cup semi-final against Caley Jags. John Hughes’ men had not read the script however, as they showed steel and flamboyance in equal measure to record a dramatic 3-2 extra-time victory, which teed them up for their final success against Falkirk at the national stadium a month later.

That was not the Hoops’ only Hampden disappointment under Deila however, and the side assembled by Rodgers looks far less likely to slip up when the stakes are high. Inverness, who went on to finish third that season, were also playing with far more confidence back then, compared with Richie Foran’s men who are currently bottom of the table and without a league victory since October.

Perhaps the break from the toils of their league campaign will do them good though, and the pressure is most certainly off Foran and his unfancied players. St Johnstone showed in the league last weekend that teams can find a way through against the champions, however their 2-1 lead only served to aggravate Celtic, who went on to triumph 5-2, and Inverness will likely require a vastly below-par Hoops performance if they are to have any chance.

Hopes of a Highland cup run appear more likely to lie in Dingwall, although County themselves will come up against a side on red hot form. The Dons will not relish the match either, having fallen to a 2-1 defeat in the last encounter between the sides in December, however the response to that setback, in the form of six wins from seven games, will mean Derek McInnes’ men arrive in the Highlands in confident mood.

From the outset, this is a game that could go any one of several ways based on recent encounters. The sides have exchanged 4-0 thrashings at Pittodrie, while the last two games in Dingwall have ebbed and flowed, with the team reduced to 10 men going on to take all three points by a solitary strike.

Goals and excitement are the norm, and with a big crowd expected for the first major cup-tie between the teams there is no reason to expect any different this weekend.

Aside from their last trip to the Granite City, County have fared well against the sides in contention for second place, and have proven a tough nut to crack by holding both Rangers and Hearts to a stalemate every time they have met.

Jim McIntyre had been critical of some of his side’s defensive performances in recent weeks, but they showed a much greater resilience in Saturday’s 1-1 draw at Ibrox which they will undoubtedly need once again when the Reds come to town.

The draw could certainly have been kinder to both County and Caley Thistle, but their path to more Hampden glory is sure to look a lot clearer if they can defy the odds and eliminate one of the sides expected to be in contention for the trophy come May.