Sunday, February 20, 2011

Old Firm Preview: The Neutral View

I like custard. When I know I’m going to be having custard I am happy. I look forward to my custard experience.

And then the custard arrives. And it’s lumpy. This disappoints me.

Too often in the past Old Firm games have been like lumpy custard. You look forward to the big event and then you are treated to a dish about as appetising as cat vomit.

Thankfully at Ibrox a couple of weeks ago Rangers and Celtic just about lived up to hype. It was 90 minutes of cup football that Scotland had no need to be ashamed of.

Rangers and Celtic as ambassadors? With a couple of those Ibrox goals they were spoiling us.

There is, I suppose, also a danger that eating custard all time - even if it is the best custard in the world - would get a bit dull.

All of which runs through my jumbled mind as I preview act four of this season’s Celtic v Rangers seven part epic.

Old Firm supporting friends are forever telling me that each and every Old Firm game matters. But this one might just matter more than most.

The league table doesn’t lie. But it can lead you down a blind alley. The table shows Celtic at the top with Rangers' two games in hand giving the Ibrox side a predicted one point lead.

Doesn’t feel like that though. Since the January 2nd Old Firm clash the momentum has shifted inexorably towards Celtic, an impression that the Scottish Cup draw at Ibrox did little to dispel.

Celtic seem to be playing the better football with a more resilient and more adaptable squad. They have fewer fears over fixture congestion and they don’t have the added distraction of financial shenanigans that would make an Enron accountant blush.

And yet.

Are we really ready to write Rangers off? Would this not be typical of the Ibrox side, to travel to Celtic Park and mug the league leaders in their own back yard.

The better side doesn’t always win these games. And what a boost Rangers would get from winning this and halting what is beginning to look like a Celtic procession to the title.

The importance of the game will dictate Rangers’ tactics. I don’t think this is a game they can afford to lose. Walter Smith’t team will be set out to be difficult to beat. That’s the main aim. Anything else is a bonus.

Neil Lennon could spring a surprise and play both Anthony Stokes and Gary Hooper but he’ll be acutely aware of the need to guard against being caught on the counter so I’d expect him to start with just one up front.

Oddly home advantage has proved redundant in the games so far this season with Rangers coming back to steamroller Celtic in the second half of the first Parkhead clash and Celtic twice outplaying Rangers at Ibrox.

What outcome can we expect? Undoubtedly this has the prospect of being hugely interesting. Will Scott Brown and El Hadji Diouf pick up where they left off a fortnight go? Has this creaking Rangers’ squad got one last push left? How will Celtic’s young squad - and their still inexperienced manager - cope with the weight of expectation?

It could be a cracker. Even if it’s not it should be, at the very least, intriguing.

Earlier in the week I backed Celtic to win this 2-1. I’ll stand by that although I now disagree with myself.

If it’s going to be that close I think Rangers will nick it. If not then I think Celtic will win it more comfortably.

It is always dangerous to read too much into one game. But I think this one defines the season. It’s that important.

Hold on to your hats.

The Celtic view
The Rangers view

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