Sunday, April 24, 2011

Rangers v Celtic: Destiny Calls

Old Firm matchday number seven. Rangers v Celtic. Old friends never get tired of meeting up.

By any footballing standards today’s Easter clash provides drama enough. To the winner, it looks, goes the league title and a tilt at the Champions League.

Sadly Scotland in 2011 relies not on footballing drama alone.

We had already seen the cranking up of the rancour surrounding Old Firm games this season. We had seen the police raise their concerns.

We had seen protagonists fail to acknowledge that increased pressure, that heightened scrutiny, and lose their heads in the heat of the moment.

We had seen the furrowed brows of politicians, of Rangers and Celtic along with the great and the good of Scottish football being summoned to an Edinburgh summit.

But none of that prepared us for the news that Neil Lennon was among those being targeted in a letter bomb campaign.

So today the SPL hosts the one fixture in its calendar that garners some attention outside our borders. But the world, unaware of subtleties and fed only headlines, will now associate this game, this showpiece match, with an attempt to kill the Celtic manager.

There better be lot of people, in a lot of roles, in a lot of organisations asking themselves how it has ever come to this.

In the immediate aftermath of the story breaking I saw a few muted comments about cancelling today’s game or playing it behind closed doors.

The glib answer is that not playing today would be to allow this madman and his twisted hatred to win.

The truth is football is a remarkably resilient beast, unerringly able to march on in the face of outside interference, adept at turning a blind eye to situations it would rather ignore.

There was never any doubt that this game would go ahead today.

But it will go ahead under quite unparalled scrutiny. I suspect that the rational reaction to the week’s events – to adopt a position of reconciliatory calm – will pass certain elements by. Instead I fear some will see today as an even better excuse to display their defiance, indulge their more hysterical tendencies.

We’ll do well to get through this game with people commenting only on the football.

That’s a shame because this is one of the climatic events of the season, a season where both Celtic and Rangers have wobbled, recovered, impressed at times and simply got the job done at times.

Different seasons, different distractions, different styles. But they’ve stayed knotted together in the race for the title. Today one of them will take a massive step towards glory.

A point behind and a game in hand, Celtic have a slight advantage. The widely held view is that Celtic have the harder run in, with more away games.

That argument doesn’t always hold in Scottish football though, as evidenced in a week when both Rangers and Celtic converted potentially tricky away ties into 4-0 routs.

Even being visitors today is not a hammer blow. Both sides have felt the pain of Old Firm defeats at home this season. But Celtic are yet to lose a match at Ibrox.

Yet it was Rangers, so chastened in being tactically trumped at New Year, so off the pace in the league at Parkhead and so snarlingly impotent in being knocked out of the Scottish Cup, who took the first silverware of the season.

That day at Hampden Rangers got a lot right and Celtic barely even got started. It proved again, if proof was ever needed, that Rangers have a dogged resistance to being reduced to the role of also rans.

Proof also that this exciting Celtic side, very impressive when playing and attacking with pace and stuffed full of performers who can make the opposition squirm, are not without weaknesses and still lack the gritty experience of some of this Rangers squad.

And how Rangers would relish it if their own attacking force was to perform today. Nikika Jelavic seems to be hitting form and his presence should at least partially soothe feelings of attacking inadequacy when Rangers eye up Celtic’s abundance of options.

Celtic can afford to draw and win their remaining games to take the title.

A draw for Rangers will leave them reliant on Celtic slipping up.

That, along with their strength in depth and their greater ability to relentlessly turn the screw when they get ahead or begin to dominate, makes me consider Celtic favourites.

But the league table shows how little there is between them over the course of a long season.

Will Rangers greater need to win tempt then into a gameplan that suits Celtic by giving them space to exploit?

Will the league cup final performance haunt Celtic or inspire them to guard against complacency?

There’s an interesting ninety minutes ahead. Whoever wins, whatever the result it would be nice if it was the football that people are talking about this evening.

Prediction: Always hard to call these games. Celtic to win 2-1. Might happen. Might not.