ONE of Scottish football’s most intense feuds resumes this weekend after being put on hold for four years.
Regarded by many as the next best thing to the Old Firm, Aberdeen against Rangers has often been a fiery fixture, which embodied the competitive edge to the former Scottish Premier League era.
With the Dons rediscovering their form in last week’s classy come-from-behind win at Dundee, Derek McInnes’s side will be primed to take on a beleaguered Gers side who have endured a difficult start to their long-awaited Premiership return.
A tough fortnight on the pitch, which saw the Glasgow side unravel at Celtic Park before failing to find a way past Ross County, has deepened off it with the implosion of the banned Joey Barton creating an unnecessary distraction.
The outspoken Englishman’s latest outburst seemed to have proved detrimental to both his career and Rangers’ season, but the experienced midfield man – now the subject of a betting investigation – has vowed to fight back.
The fiasco could not be more welcome or ideal, during a period in which the Gers have only won one of their last four games – and, even more worryingly, look disjointed and defensively frail.
But their regular League Cup keeper Matt Gilks, a former team-mate of Barton’s at Burnley, took to the media to insist it hasn’t unsettled the squad or affected their match preparations.
After breezing past Queen of the South with their best display of the season to set up an Old Firm clash in the Betfred Cup semis, under-fire boss Mark Warburton will hope a sense of normality has been restored ahead of Sunday’s testing trip to Pittodrie – an experience former Gers captain Barry Ferguson admitted he didn’t enjoy during his playing career.
Although their last meeting produced a tepid 1-1 draw at Ibrox in January 2012, there is a certain nastiness to this particular rivalry, which is steeped in tradition as well as controversy.
This was emphasised in a typically bruising encounter in October 2011, the last time the men from Govan made the trip to the north-east, when Kyle Lafferty’s clinical finish and a Nikica Jelavic penalty helped the Gers to a 2-1 victory, putting them in firm control in the title race.
But neither have fully established themselves as pacesetters having opened the campaign in stuttering fashion, punctuated by glimpses of brilliance and moments of madness in equal measure.
Heading into the seventh round of matches, both sides are adjacent in the table with almost identical records – fourth and fifth respectively, with two wins, three draws and a defeat from six league games.
Aberdeen had a more difficult route than Rangers into the League Cup’s last four, as recently as Thursday night, with Adam Rooney’s 90th minute header the difference against a stubborn St Johnstone.
It extended the Dons’ steady but unspectacular opening to the campaign but – like the Gers – their only domestic defeat thus far has come at Celtic Park, with Aberdeen on the end of a similar resounding loss at the end of August.
The Scottish Premiership’s marquee clash of the weekend is expected to be played in front of a sell-out Pittodrie crowd as well as the Sky cameras for what should be a Sunday lunchtime to savour (KO 13:00 BST).
And both the Dons and the Gers will be desperately hoping for the win which would provide a psychological boost to their faltering bids in challenging champions Celtic.
While, from the neutral point of view, it has all the ingredients of a classic.
Aberdeen skipper Ryan Jack will be sidelined once again as he continues to recuperate from knee surgery.
Winger Jonny Hayes missed Thursday’s League Cup tie against St Johnstone after sustaining a hamstring injury in the warm-up but the Irishman expects to be fit to face the Gers.
Rangers captain Lee Wallace should return at left-back after being rested for Tuesday’s League Cup tie against Queen of the South.
Andy Halliday, who described taking over the armband in midweek as “one of the proudest moments of my career”, is set to continue in midfield with Barton – the man he had a training ground row with last week – suspended by the club for three weeks.
Kenny Miller will be included in the squad, despite being arrested in connection with an alleged disturbance at a restaurant, but Jordan Rossiter remains unavailable with a calf strain.
Matt Gilks was in goal against the Doonhamers in midweek but is set to return to the bench, with Wes Foderingham likely to come back in.
Referee: John Beaton
Assistants referees: Dougie Potter and Andrew McWilliam
Fourth official: Don Robertson
Fifa official Beaton, 34, has already had some eventful games and controversial moments so far this season – giving 11 yellow cards and a penalty for a dive, three penalties in 45 minutes, booking two players for diving in the same game and sending a manager to the stands for sarcastically applauding a decision.
But the Lanarkshire whistler will be hoping for a quieter afternoon in arguably his biggest match of the campaign so far – and his first between Aberdeen and Rangers.
You can read more about Beaton’s appointment here.
Aberdeen 2 (Vernon 10′, Maguire 30′, 87′ sent off)
Rangers 3 (Miller 34′ pen, 52′, Jelavic 67′)
September 2010, SPL, Pittodrie
It was another early-season showdown at Pittodrie which produced one of the most thrilling games between these bitter rivals in recent times.
Reigning champions Rangers looked on course to suffer their first defeat of the season when Scott Vernon and Chris Maguire fired the Dons into a 2-0 lead inside half-an-hour.
But Kenny Miller, currently in his third spell with the Ibrox club, continued his excellent form at the start of the campaign by first converting a controversially awarded penalty before blasting home his second to level the scores.
Nikica Jelavic notched the winner midway through the second half and Aberdeen’s Maguire saw red late on as the Gers moved above Celtic at the top of the SPL on goal difference, with both sides winning their first six league games.
You can read more about the match here.
HEAD TO HEAD:
Despite the lack of meetings in recent years, Rangers have found life difficult in the Granite City over the last decade.
However, the Gers have won on their last three visits to Pittodrie, but have had to overcome obstacles along the way and come from behind in games.
Aberdeen haven’t beaten Rangers since a 1-0 success at home in November 2009 – surviving the dismissal of captain Mark Kerr to earn three deserved points in the SPL through Lee Miller’s early goal.
But in the subsequent seven meetings, it’s been tight every time but the Gers have won on six occasions – albeit only by a one or two-goal margin.
Indeed, other than SPL games, the sides haven’t crossed paths in a cup competition since September 2004 when Rangers won 2-0 away from home in the League Cup.
There have been so many keenly fought encounters between the sides in times gone by – and the bookmakers expect this one to be no different.
It’s a difficult one to call and the odds make it no easier to make up your mind if you fancy a flutter.
Aberdeen are favoured to win at 13/8 by SkyBet, sportingbet, Coral and betfair, while betway, BetBright, Marathon Bet and BoyleSports prefer Rangers to take three points at 8/5.
Perhaps the safest option is backing a draw – which is currently 12/5 with SkyBet, BoyleSports, BetVictor, Coral, Marathon Bet and 188Bet.
You can view a full list of winning odds here.
WHAT THE MANAGERS SAY:
Rangers boss Mark Warburton has been criticised by many in recent weeks amid the latest turmoil to filter through Ibrox and the club’s inability to hit the ground running on their top-flight return.
Some have even called for his removal, with pundit Chris Sutton claiming Warburton is “arrogant” and has two games to save his job.
But the defiant former Brentford boss has shook off the haters and, after a shambolic display against fellow fierce rivals Celtic earlier this month, insists his players are ready for the challenge they face against the Dons.
He said: “They want to play in these type of games. It will be a 20,000 sell-out and an intimidating atmosphere and they will enjoy that. It has been five years since we have been up there. The fans are looking forward to it and so are the players.
“We are looking forward to the trip north. After what happened at Parkhead hard work is the only way of getting better.”
Opposite number Derek McInnes has questioned why his side have been given two days less to prepare for the game but insists the Dons will be at full strength and ready for Rangers.
Speaking after his team booked a League Cup semi spot against Morton, McInnes said: “We need a big effort from everyone for Sunday. It’s ridiculous that Rangers have 48 hours of extra recovery before a league game when there doesn’t need to be.
“Why our game was moved to the Thursday, I don’t get. But it is what it is – and we’ll be ready for them come Sunday.
“It will be a full house here, everyone wants to be involved in it. I think it’s a significant fixture on the calendar, Aberdeen against Rangers.
“It probably gets everyone fired up. They’re a good side, they had an impressive performance the other night.
“Rangers have got too much quality, having invested heavily in a squad that already looked good in the Championship, to consider them anything but a tough nut to crack. But we’re in good form. And tonight’s result helps.
“I don’t know about us being favourites. I can’t go and spend £2 million or £3 million and pay the wages they do. But we always feel we can win, especially at Pittodrie. Sunday is no different.”
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