Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Scottish Cup: Celtic v Rangers - The Replay

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more. Yet again the game is afoot.

Old Firm clash number five this evening. The Scottish Cup replay after that thrilling 2-2 draw at Ibrox last month.

After the teams met at Celtic Park ten days ago Rangers were left looking bereft, the momentum seemingly inescapably with Neil Lennon's team.

Since then Rangers have progressed in the Europa League and brushed aside St Johnstone while Celtic have stumbled to a 2-0 defeat at Motherwell.

It is indeed, as a football bard once said, a funny old game.

Who are the favourites tonight? Is it Celtic who looked, emphatically looked, to be the better side in the last SPL clash?

Or is it Rangers who somehow found a reaction to that chastening experience and possessing the games in hand that continue to offer them the chance to reel in their rivals at the top of the league table.

An intriguing night in store, and perhaps even the tanatalising prospect of a first Scottish Cup game between these two to go to penalties.

Will this be the evening for unlikely heroes? Lukasz Zaluska will make a rare start in goal for the home side after Fraser Forster was sent off in the original tie.

David Weir, who managed to look even older than his 40 years against Celtic's pacy attack in the last league game here, returns to marshall a Rangers defence that might adopt the five man European blueprint.

Both Walter Smith and Neil Lennon will be looking for their players to react.

For Smith there has to be an improvement on the hapless performance the last time they came to call on their neighbours.

Lennon will be determined to see his players lift themselves from the Motherwell defeat and prove to themselves and to any doubters that the 3-0 Old Firm win wasn't a team hitting their season's peak.

It is Lennon who carries a 2-1 advantage from the season's first four clashes. Both managers will be keen to stress that these games are not about the men in dugout.

But Lennon will take a degree of personal satisfaction from his advantage, an emphatic two fingered salute to those who called him a mere Bhoy in a man's world.

Smith, too, in moments of vanity might wonder if trailing in this individual duel is quite the tone he wanted to set in his valedictory season.

Ah, the intrigue, the stories, the drama.

Love them or loathe them, these games have a habit of demanding your attention.

They are also notoriously difficult to predict. With home advantage, Lennon's "blood and thunder" filling the Glasgow night, I make Celtic slight favourites.

So I'll back the home win. But I don't see this being a 3-0 rout like the last Old Firm clash.

And, in predicting a Celtic win, I reserve the right to say that it would hardly surprise me to see Rangers advance.

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