Celtic v Rangers: The Old Firm circus back in town

Celtic and Rangers are the best of enemies with scores to settle – but Sunday’s first Old Firm derby since April 2012 could be an uncharacteristically tame affair.

Lining up: Celtic and Rangers will be top billing in Scotland when they meet in Glasgow for the first time in 34 months
Lining up: Celtic and Rangers will be top billing in Scotland when they meet in Glasgow for the first time in 34 months

IMAGINE seeing the noisy next-door neighbours – who have caused you so much grief – move out of their house, you establish a dominant empire in their absence and then all of a sudden they roll back into town.

That’s a scenario similar to the one facing Celtic this weekend as they prepare to do battle with their biggest allies – Rangers – on neutral territory.

The build-up has been brewing every since the draw took place early last month but the first Old Firm derby in almost three years is getting closer and closer.

Hampden Park will be one almighty cauldron of clamour as it stages, naturally, one of the high-points and humdingers of many a Scottish football season.

Talk of the two giants being unable to live without each other has given the narrative a somewhat romantic twist – one thing can be assured, there will be no love lost when the serious stuff begins at the first whistle.

The sparring appears to have begun in earnest with Celtic fans stirring up the pre-match taunting by suggesting that the Old Firm rivalry is dead in the water following Rangers’ revival as a “new company” when they were expelled to Division Three three years ago.

The Scottish Premiership champions are overwhelming favourites to steal the thunder and were comfortable winners when the sides last locked horns at Parkhead way back in April 2012.

But the Gers – despite lagging behind Hearts in the Scottish Championship promotion race and recent struggles in cup competitions – cannot be discredited on such a grand occasion in which their ability to rise to the challenge has long been proven.

The history books testify that when it gets to the business end and major trophies are to be won, Rangers are as good as any team. The Light Blues, after all, are the most successful team in the League Cup with a record 27 successes.

Mike Ashley’s bail-out loan to ease their financial worries has provided a much-welcome boost during the calm before the storm. How the men from Ibrox would love another memorable one on the pitch on Sunday.

Amid all the hype of the two Glaswegian outfits renewing their rivalry, it would be easy to discount the fact that a significant prize – a place in the Scottish League Cup Final in March against either Aberdeen or Dundee United – is at stake.

It may only be the last four stage but, such is the magnitude of any contest between these two, it has a final feeling about it.

Only four years have passed since Walter Smith’s last cup showpiece as Gers boss ended in an extra-time victory over the Hoops in the League Cup – although an ocean of water has passed under the bridge since.

That is one example of Celtic’s recent wobbles in a competition they have won 14 times – their last triumph, though, coming in the 2008/09 season. Ironically, Gordon Strachan’s team had to overcome Rangers in the final that year.

Since then, the League Cup has had three different names while there have been plenty of regrettable performances and results against – it’s fair to say – less fancied opposition.

You only have to mention the teams Ross County, Kilmarnock, St Mirren and Morton to send a tingling down the spine of Hoops supporters – many of whom will feel this trophy has got away far too easily in times gone by.

Tussle: Danny Lennon’s St Mirren beat Neil Lennon’s Celtic 3-2 at Hampden in the League Cup semis two years ago

Celtic, therefore, will be itching to issue a reminder of their domestic dominance and the upper-hand they hold over the other half of the city.

With games in hand, their ambitions of a fourth successive title will be decided in the coming weeks. Having failed miserably on the cup front last term, fending off their familiar foes at the penultimate hurdle carries greater importance.

The response to last month’s minor stumble – a mere two-game winless blip – has been emphatic with four straight wins without conceding as they aim to brush off the attentions of Derek McInnes’s daring Dons.

Match winner: Commons netted the only goal in Celtic's 1-0 win at bottom-club Ross County in the Premiership last weekend
Match winner: Commons netted the only goal in Celtic’s 1-0 win at bottom-club Ross County in the Premiership last weekend

With their division advantage and current run of form, the perceived formality of a Celtic victory will be evident on many betting slips.

Nothing, though, is guaranteed on derby day in Glasgow when the passions and tensions are high and the need for bragging rights is even higher. The need for a strong referee might even eclipse that.

Craig Thomson – with 10 previous Old Firm encounters under his belt – will probably be the most experienced man to take to the field on Sunday.

However, as if the occasion wasn’t strange enough, for the two men gracing the dugouts particularly – it will be a completely new experience.

Stepping into the unknown: Deila will be in the Celtic hotseat in an Old Firm derby for the first time since replacing Neil Lennon last summer
Stepping into the unknown: Deila will be in the Celtic hotseat in an Old Firm derby for the first time since replacing Neil Lennon last summer

Ronny Deila and Kenny McDowall will be hugely looking forward to their Old Firm managerial debuts and preparing their players – for whom most this will be an exciting initiation – in the best possible way. The word ‘discipline’ no doubt becoming the new buzzword.

Having said that, no amount of preparation in training could possible get you ready for what lies ahead and – when they emerge to the deafening noise of 52,000 supporters at the national stadium – the manager’s thoughts will have quickly disappeared from memory.

McDowall has tasted the derby as a Gers player but will be acutely aware that watching it from the technical area will be a different kettle of fish entirely.

The uncertainty surrounding his future was cleared up when the current caretaker – having replaced the resigned Ally McCoist before Christmas – handed in his own notice to leave at the end of the season.

Thrown in at the deep end: McDowall has a difficult job on his hands to keep Rangers fighting on three fronts between now and May
Thrown in at the deep end: McDowall has a difficult job on his hands to keep Rangers fighting on three fronts between now and May

After his disastrous start to life in the hotseat at Hibs, the last two completed matches have brought six points which have consolidated second spot and a much higher standard of display.

For now, McDowall’s main focus is solely on guiding the Gers back into the top-flight although, as far as distractions go, the participation in a derby now revered across the world is a healthy one. Getting back to Hampden in just under two months time must be a high priority too.

Veteran: Rangers captain Lee McCulloch has played in several Old Firm derbies in the Scottish top-flight and cup competitions over the years
Veteran: Rangers captain Lee McCulloch has played in several Old Firm derbies in the Scottish top-flight and cup competitions over the years

The Gers might have been helped or hindered by their last two matches against Hearts and Cowdenbeath falling foul of the weather, yet cup victories over Premiership sides St Johnstone, Inverness and Kilmarnock already this term will exude confidence in their bid to pull off what would be an upset.

The Scottish calendar may well have had the Edinburgh derbies to keep the purists happy – and this season the closest geographical rivalry in Britain in the Dundee affairs – but the biggest and unmissable event is back with a massive circle around it.

Rangers have edged the head-to-head record over the last six derbies yet those sorts of statistics matter for little. The day itself and who wants it more is all that counts.

It has the makings to be an explosive classic which inspired the previous era – when the giants fought tooth and nail for the SPL title year after year – but with the inevitable possibility to leave everyone disappointed having failed to fulfill its promise.

Nevertheless, just to be talking about another Old Firm derby in the making brings the anticipation and love for the game brimming to the surface.

The pressure to perform on Sunday may be evenly-spread but it’s down to Rangers to pick up their stuttering promotion bid to ensure we are not kept waiting as long for the next one.

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