Celtic v Rangers: Ten things to look out for in the Old Firm derby

With the first Old Firm derby in the Scottish top-flight in four and a half years on the horizon, here’s 10 things to cast an eye over at Celtic Park.

Celtic v Rangers Old Firm derby (September 2016)
History: The two most successful teams in Scotland, who first locked horns in 1888, will meet for the 402nd time this weekend (Picture from Sky Sports)

After an international break in which Scotland proved their mettle in Malta, the Scottish Premiership returns with the biggest of bangs. 

Two cup ties in the last two seasons have given a small taste of what to expect but the first league meeting of Celtic and Rangers in four and a half years is sure to provide a more mouth-watering encounter to savour for a Saturday lunchtime.

Although the worldwide audience may be slightly diminished with the Manchester derby scheduled at the same time, the opening Old Firm derby of the campaign is the showdown everyone has been waiting for.

Rangers, back on the top-flight scene after working their way up the ladder in the face of adversity, are still yet to convince they can challenge their rivals from across Glasgow, who will look to maintain their 100 per cent league record ahead of a daunting trip to the Nou Camp to start their Champions League group stage campaign.

You can be forgiven for not knowing what to expect – other than the unexpected – so here are 10 things to keep a close eye on at Celtic Park…

1)  Barton and Brown midfield match-up

Joey Barton and Scott Brown
The best of enemies: Barton, 34, (left) has been stoking up the fires with Brown, 31, as the pair prepare to do battle on the pitch for the first time (Picture from Sky Sports)

Ever since the transfer of the summer in Scottish football arose, the mind games and banter has been flying around and the Twitter talk about how the combustible duo would conduct themselves on the same field has barely stopped.

Thankfully, there hasn’t been a long wait to find out – and Barton’s arrival at Ibrox has only added further spice to what was always going to be a titanic tussle.

If you believe everything you read and what’s been said, Barton is a Celtic fan (as well as a world beater), Brown is not ‘in the same league’ as him and Aberdeen are Celtic’s biggest title challengers. But now, the time has almost come for the football to do the talking.

Brown, who has retired from Scotland duty in a bid to extend his Celtic career, has masses of Old Firm experience and used to like pushing El Hadji Diouf’s buttons – now he has another egotistical Rangers hothead to wind up.

Barton has played in high-profile battles south of the border but nothing on this scale and, after a slow start to his Rangers career, will be desperate to make a positive impact on the grandest of stages. Something he is more than capable of doing.

With two of the country’s biggest personalities going head to head, there is only room for one ego on the same field and don’t be surprised if one – or indeed both – lose their cool and don’t last the full 90 minutes.

2)  Shaky defending from both sides 

Rangers v Celtic defenders (Sept 2016)
Susceptible: Although there have only been 66 goals in the last 35 Old Firm derbies but (left to right) James Tavernier, Rob Kiernan, Efe Ambrose and Dedryck Boyata are all prone to individual errors (Picture from Sky Sports)

Despite the teams’ undoubtedly quality which makes them stand out as Scotland’s best, neither are renowned for their defensive stability.

Both have experimented with a back-three and a mixture of youth and experience in recent times but are yet to find the right solution to suit their personnel.

Although Eoghan O’Connell, 21, has shown a high level of maturity in the season’s early weeks, Celtic’s problems stem from constant changes to their centre-back pairing and their ability to make costly individual errors – Efe Ambrose being the prime candidate.

Whereas, Rangers have more experience of Scottish football in their ranks – Danny Wilson and Lee Wallace having played in several Old Firm meetings.

But rustiness is still evident, with Clint Hill admitting he still needs to get up and running and Wallace pulling out of Scotland duty with an injury complaint, while James Tavernier can often be too cavalier going forward, leaving acres of space waiting to be exploited.

With the stakes as high as they can reach and no margin for error, it will be interesting to see how messrs Warburton and Rodgers line up at the back and whether they will risk a more youthful look to the defence.

Neither have kept a clean sheet in the league so far this term and you would have to be extremely brave to bet on that statistic changing in this game of all games.

3)  Drama upon drama

Celtic v Rangers feud April 2011
Worth the wait: It will be the first league meeting since Celtic’s 3-0 win over Rangers at Parkhead in April 2012 (Picture from Sky Sports)

It would be no exaggeration to suggest a full-blooded Old Firm – complete with the usual cliffhangers that leave you wanting more – could rival an hour-long episode of Eastenders for explosive drama and unmissable viewing.

With sub-plots happening all over the pitch and every kick of the ball being keenly fought for, you can barely take your eyes off the action, of which there is a whole lot more than your average game.

Even a tepid battle between the sides – and there have been some in the past – contains its fair share of excitement and intensity to maintain your attention but rarely does it disappoint as far as entertainment value is concerned.

Assuming both sides finish in the top six (which is almost guaranteed), there will be four Old Firm encounters in the league this season and, should they all live up to the billing, Scottish football as a whole would be the biggest winners.

4)  Passion on the terraces

Celtic and Rangers fans
Loud and proud: Fans of Celtic and Rangers, who are separated by a mere six miles, will generate an electric atmosphere at Celtic Park (Picture from Sky Sports)

When the fixtures were released in June, this was the one that everyone with Celtic and Rangers connections across the globe will have looked for before any other.

Ever since, the anticipation has been building – on derby day in Glasgow, emotions extend far deeper than the confines of the pitch.

An Old Firm occasion means so much to so many, regardless of the prize on offer, and the raw passion from a full house of 60,000 fans at Celtic Park will undoubtedly reverberate across the city on Saturday afternoon.

No matter what stage of the game or how well their team is doing, both sets of supporters will act as the proverbial twelfth man and could make the difference to ease the tension on the players and edge their side over the finishing line.

5)  Touchline antics

Mark Warburton on sidelines (v Hibernian - 1st November 2015)
Optimistic: The 53-year-old, the first Englishman to be Rangers manager, is in confident mood as he prepares for his trip to Celtic Park (Picture from Sky Sports)

Mark Warburton and Brendan Rodgers may have worked together on the coaching staff at Watford nine years ago, however Saturday represents the first time the two talented managers will come up against each other.

The pair – who were huge hits north of the border with Liverpool and Brentford respectively – have never been known for allowing feelings to overflow in the technical area and largely adopt a composed presence when issuing instructions to players.

If the game is played in good spirits, it might prove to be a quiet afternoon for the fourth official.

But, in the highly-charged derby environment when discipline and temperament can often fly out of the window faster than a tackle can fly in, anything goes and if decisions aren’t going their way they will be quick to make their dissatisfaction seen and heard.

Warburton has already sampled the atmosphere that comes with an Old Firm clash, albeit in different surroundings at the national stadium, hiherto it will be unchartered territory for Rodgers, who will know by the end of the afternoon just what all the fuss is about.

6)  Attacking firepower coming to the fore

Rangers v Celtic attacking options (Sept 2016)
Fearsome four: Rangers duo Miller and Waghorn and Celtic’s Griffiths and Forrest are likely to be the key attacking weapons which decide the game (Picture from Sky Sports)

The big games always bring the best out of the big names and there will be plenty on show who will be looking to make an impact in the biggest match in the Scottish Premiership so far this season.

On Celtic’s side, Leigh Griffiths – who sweeped the player of the year awards with 40 goals last season – will be fresh from having the international break off, while James Forrest and Scott Sinclair have the creative potential to be the match-winner.

Regardless of who forms the attacking triumvirate behind Griffiths, it will contain enough quality to cause Rangers all sorts of problems.

One man who will be on a mission to take down the Hoops will be Kenny Miller, who has a habit of popping up with vital contributions as he did on the last derby day and will be full of condence after bagging four against Linfield. With Martyn Waghorn getting back to his best and Barrie McKay in top form, Rangers possess the tools to give Celtic a tough time.

There are options aplenty for both managers to choose from and, in a high-profile game when attack is likely to be the best form of defence, they should opt to overload their offensive choices which will make for a more open and expansive match and play to the strengths of both sides.

7)  Officials feeling the pressure

The third team: Collum, 37, who went to Euro 2016, will be assisted at Celtic Park by Douglas Ross, Frank Connor and fourth official Kevin Clancy (Pictures from Sky Sports)

Keeping control of an Old Firm derby can be as difficult a job for match officials as both sets of players care to make it.

Even before a ball is kicked, the referee has already adorned the status of ‘public enemy number one’ and Willie Collum, who has often come under fire for controversial calls, can expect nothing less than a tough afternoon.

He may have two Glasgow derbies under his belt, albeit in 2010 and 2011, but those experiences will count for very little once he sounds the first whistle.

As much as players are under pressure to perform, referees’ careers are also on the line in the biggest of fixtures and there is no margin for error.

Collum has kept a low profile in recent times after a flurry of high-profile errors earlier in the year but is notoriously card-happy, so the approach he adopts on Saturday will be interesting to observe.

As ever, concentration and position will be key  – with an added need to stay focused amid a cauldron of noise inside a Parkhead packed with passionate patrons. If he survives the 90 minutes and isn’t being spoken about afterwards, that can be considered an achievement.

8)  Revenge on Celtic minds

It may have hammered the final nail in Ronny Deila’s coffin to end his turgid two-year tenure but the Hoops will still be reeling, and hurting, from the Hampden horror of seeing their Glasgow adversaries progress to the Scottish Cup final at their expense in April – even though Hibernian went on to lift the trophy.

In contrast to Rangers’ stuttering form on their top-flight return, Rodgers’ men have made an assured start to their quest for a sixth successive league title and brushed aside their nearest challengers in the last two seasons, Aberdeen, with relative ease before the international break.

But the biggest opportunity to lay down an early-season marker in the title race comes this weekend – and Celtic will be desperate to send Rangers packing with a firm reminder of their status as the country’s force.

Only then could memories of Tom Rogic’s wild spotkick, which sparked even wilder Gers celebrations in front of their eyes at the national stadium, be truly laid to rest.

9)  Fast and furious…even before the word ‘go’

Celtic v Rangers challenge April 2012
Tumultuous: The home side have won the last four league meetings, on the back of a fast start to proceedings (Picture from Sky Sports)

The unrelenting tempo and frenetic nature made the Old Firm derbies of old a joy to watch from both a fans and neutral perspective.

Those occasions were simply unmissable and had a tendency to start at 100 miles per hour before speeding up somewhat.

Although the League Cup semi clash of 2015 lacked any real punch, last season’s Scottish Cup thriller delivered the typical blood and thunder encounter which ushered in a new era renewing the oldest of fierce rivalries.

The first league meeting in over four years has been a long time coming and – despite the prize only being three league points at this stage of the season, as opposed to a place in a domestic cup final – the competitive edge will be evident even before the first whistle has been blown.

10)  Derby debutants looking to impress

Impact: Winger Scott Sinclair, 27, has made a positive impression for Celtic with four goals in six appearances in all competitions so far (Picture from Sky Sports)

A new league usually brings a raft of new signings and it’s been no different for Rangers, with 12 new faces winging their way through the Ibrox doors this summer.

It’s been a bit quieter on the Celtic front with six players drafted in as Rodgers looked south of the border to integrate fringe players from English clubs whilst opting for quality over quantity.

Of all the recruits from both sides of the divide, none have experienced this unique occasion before, which may count against some of them in the cauldron of Celtic Park.

Lively striker Joe Garner and former Arsenal centre-back Philippe Senderos are likely to receive their first Rangers starts after run-outs in last weekend’s friendly thrashing of Linfield, with the latter bringing a wealth of international nous to the Gers backline.

For Celtic, Cristian Gamboa could be thrown in at the deep end following his deadline day arrival from West Bromwich Albion but that prospect is one the Costa Rica right-back is already relishing.

Many of the summer buys have already had a settling-in period but still have a point to prove – and Saturday lunchtime at Parkhead is no better time to do it. If they can perform to a high level in their Old Firm initiations, it would certainly bode well for the mammoth season ahead.

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