Lawrence Shankland can punish Celtic weakness AGAIN and here's why he gets my Player of the Year vote - Chris Sutton

Lawrence Shankland would win my vote for PFA Scotland Player of the Year.

And, if Celtic don’t start defending cross balls properly, the Hearts striker might get to enjoy a double celebration this weekend. Shankland has already tortured my old club this season and you wouldn’t bet large sums of money on him not doing it again if Celtic don’t tighten it up at the back.

First thing first, let’s talk about the Tynecastle hitman. He’s had another magnificent season and he’s kept his head through all manner of chat over his future to continue scoring goals. Shankland’s club return of 28 so far this term is outstanding and the difference for his club throughout the campaign. That is, basically, where I came down on him. I have no issue at all with the other three candidates, all excellent. If this decision was being made at the turn of the year, I’d have gone for Matt O’Riley. He was absolutely brilliant in all aspects of his work. His workrate and creativity were up to a usual high standard and, crucially, he added goals into the mix from midfield.

In the absence of Reo Hatate, O’Riley really stood and took on a major burden through that gruelling first half of the campaign. No wonder Atletico Madrid are looking at him. He’s got all the tools and is going to the top.

But it was interesting to hear him say at the nominations unveiling that the initial interest from the Spaniards in January was tough at first on the mind. None of us know just how much it affected his form. Only he knows that. But he hasn’t been as vibrant since the resumption from the mid-winter break.

Don’t get me wrong, he’d still be one of the first names on the team sheet today if I were Brendan Rodgers and him returning to his peak for the last five games would be massive for Celtic.

At Rangers, no arguments with Jack Butland and James Tavnernier. Butland has been terrific for virtually all of the campaign and he has made big saves at big times. If he hadn’t made that reflex stop from St Mirren’s James Bolton in Paisley six days ago with the score locked at 1-1, the title race might be nearly done.

Tavernier’s numbers are remarkable. For a full-back to provide so many assists is magnificent, even if I have my doubts defensively. No question Celtic and Rangers have benefitted from having those three. But I just don't think they benefit as much as Hearts do with Shankland.

Put it another way. Take them out of their respective sides and they might get away with it. Take Shankland out of Hearts and you lose much, much more.

He’s the captain, the talisman. And he does it against the best. Had Hearts not given away a stupid penalty in stoppage time, his precise header against Rangers would have seen Steven Naismith’s side win at Ibrox last October.

Shankland scored a similar goal against Celtic six weeks later and, with the hosts unable to mount a response at Parkhead, it did lay the platform for a win. His anticipation and finish against Rodgers’ team at Tynecastle at the start of March sealed another win over Rodgers’ 10 men.

Shankland has a much better recent scoring record against Celtic than he does Rangers and my old team better be wary of him. Those headed goals against the Old Firm this season, given what I am seeing from Celtic’s defence right now, make you think he could be onto something again today.

It’s hardly as if having trouble defending cross balls is a new thing for Celtic. It's been an issue for long enough. Nonetheless, the last two games have been even more eye opening.

Two Aberdeen goals at Hampden in the Scottish Cup semi-final delivered from the same place to the same area almost ripped that trophy out of Celtic’s hands. Last weekend at Dens Park wasn’t any better. Dundee won various balls into the box from Owen Dodgson’s delivery.

Even in injury-time, young Michael Mellon was free at the back post and missed the target. There were other instances beforehand and Celtic didn’t get punished. But, if Shankland is in the mood, he won't miss like young Mellon.

And you can bet the likes of Kilmarnock’s giant defenders are licking their lips to get on the end of Danny Armstrong dead balls when Rodgers’ team go to Rugby Park on Wednesday week. Cameron Carter-Vickers is a rock for Celtic, but there needs to be better alongside him.

With Carl Starfelt, Ange Postecoglou had a solid pairing whom he could rely upon when the going got tough and they had to dig it out and see it through. It’s not like that right now. Two clean sheets in 11 games tells you that. It's fact.

Liam Scales doesn’t deserve harsh criticism because he’s really stepped forward this season and done a job when big-money signings have flopped. But the truth is that he needs to sharpen up for these last games. Not just him.

Greg Taylor and Alistair Johnston can’t get dragged under the ball, or wrapped up by opponents, or blocked off to leave free headers. It could cost a title. Listen, Celtic have the firepower and the quality to blow Hearts away. They did it at Tynecastle last October and can easily do it again if they hit their stride.

But, if they don’t and it becomes a tight and tense affair, they’ll need to be water tight because Shankland can bust the dam. He can burst most dams. It’s why he's my Player of the Year.