CELTIC and Rangers will go head to head in the first Old Firm derby in almost three years on Sunday in the Scottish League Cup semi-finals at Hampden Park.
The two Glaswegian rivals will battle for a place in the March 15 final against Dundee United after the Tangerines came from behind to knock holders Aberdeen out on Saturday.
Both have gone in vastly different directions since Celtic won the last meeting 3-0 in the Scottish Premier League at Parkhead in April 2012.
The Hoops – now under the stewardship of Ronny Deila with the Norwegian replacing Neil Lennon last summer – are gearing for a fourth successive top-flight title having experienced the highs and lows of the Champions League and won the Scottish Cup in 2013.
The Gers meanwhile were subsequently expelled to the fourth tier having gone through liquidation and administration but – having gained successive promotions – sit 13 points adrift of Scottish Championship leaders Hearts in the race to return to the Premiership.
As well as numerous players, both managers will be making their Old Firm initiations although Light Blues caretaker boss Kenny McDowall – who took over from Ally McCoist last month and will himself resign at the end of the season – has tasted this fixture for 18 years as a coach.
Celtic, having won four league games in a row and kept five successive clean sheets, are overwhelming favourites to emerge victorious as they seek to win the League Cup for the first time in six years.
27-time winners Rangers – the most successful side in the competition – will take confidence from the fact they have beaten three Premiership teams in cup ties this season although their last two league matches against Hearts and Cowdenbeath have been postponed.
Celtic – three points clear of second-placed Aberdeen in the Premiership – lost 3-2 to St Mirren in their most recent League Cup semi appearance two years ago while it is the first time the Gers have reached this stage since winning the trophy in 2011 by beating the Hoops in the final.
Although Rangers have been bailed out by a £10 million loan from Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct this week, Hoops fans took the opportunity to taunt their financial situation by shelling out £3,000 to publish an advert claiming the Old Firm is “redundant” and this was the first ever meeting of the sides in reference to the Gers re-launching as a new company.
Whether the Rangers supporters – desperate for more glory at the national stadium – will have the last laugh remains to be seen.
ROUTE TO THE FINAL:
Round Three – 3-0 win v Hearts (H)
Quarter-Finals – 6-0 win v Partick Thistle (H)
Round One – 2-1 win v Queen’s Park (A)
Round Two – 1-0 win v Inverness (H)
Round Three – 3-1 win v Falkirk (A)
Quarter-Finals – 1-0 win v St Johnstone (H)
CELTIC 3-1 RANGERS
The Hoops have recovered from a minor blip with an emphatic response and are entering the contest in almost the best possible shape. Ronny Deila will know his side are overwhelming favourites and warn the players against complacency. Rangers, meanwhile, could be rusty having not played a full match since January 10. Celtic have greater firepower with Kris Commons appearing to hit the kind of form which helped him win the PFA Player of the Year award in Scotland last season while John Guidetti will be itching to get on the scoresheet as per his hat-trick comments. The Gers have the ability to cause an upset and at least frustrate the Premiership champions but quality and endurance will eventually prevail. However, it is important for both sides to maintain their discipline. It cannot be understated how huge an occasion it is and one that everyone hopes will be memorable. The global audience will be casting its eye and let’s hope Scottish football proves to be the ultimate winner.
This is the 400th meeting of the two rivals stretching back to May 1888 – and their 48th in the League Cup.
Celtic last appeared in the final of the competition in 2012 when they lost 1-0 to Kilmarnock.
The last 10 meetings in all competitions represent five Celtic wins, three Rangers wins and two draws.
John Guidetti has not scored in his last eight games having netted 11 times in his first 12 appearances for Celtic.
The Hoops have scored 13 goals and are yet to concede in either domestic cup competitions this season.
Celtic striker John Guidetti – who earned his first start in six games against Ross County last time out – has previously claimed he aims to bag a hat-trick against Rangers.
Hoops midfielder Stefan Johansen is expected to return after missing last weekend’s 1-0 win at the Global Energy Arena with a head injury despite still having stitches in a cut above the eye.
On-loan Aston Villa winger Aleksandar Tonev is available again after serving a seven-match ban having been found guilty by the SFA of racially abusing Aberdeen defender Shay Logan back in September.
But versatile Scottish international Charlie Mulgrew will be out with a knee problem until the end of March.
Rangers defender Bilel Mohsni has been ruled out after his nation Tunisia advanced to the next stage of the Africa Cup of Nations and will play on Saturday night.
Number one goalkeeper Cammy Bell remains sidelined with a shoulder problem so veteran Steve Simonsen – who was recently found guilty of placing 55 bets on football matches – will continue to deputise.
Former Celtic striker Kenny Miller – set for his 17th Old Firm derby outing – and Jon Daly are likely to lead the line for the Gers.
Celtic: Gordon (GK), Zaluska (GK), Lustig, Denayer, Matthews, Izaguirre, Ambrose, van Dijk, Johansen, Tonev, Bitton, Johansen, Brown, Forrest, Commons, Scepovic, Stokes, Henderson, McGregor, Griffiths, Guidetti, Fisher.
Rangers: Simonsen (GK), Robinson (GK), Wallace, McGregor, Shiels, McCulloch, Clark, Law, Black, Templeton, Boyd, Faure, Miller, Crawford, Daly, Foster, Aird, Hardie, Zaliukas.
Referee: Craig Thomson
Assistant referees: Graham Chambers and David McGeachie
Fourth Official: Calum Murray