Sunday, April 29, 2012

SPL: Finding meaning, finding belief

Quite a Sunday ahead.

Celtic hosting Rangers and Hibs continuing their long, frustrating struggle to shake off relegation rivals Dunfermline against St Mirren. Two games that might normally have the Betfair football betting experts scratching their heads.

Today's match at Celtic Park is both essentially meaningless and yet crammed full of meaning.

The league title is already Celtic's. Rangers will likely claim a second place that will be rendered redundant by their current suspension from European competition.

One of these dull, go-through-the-motions, end-of season affairs then?

Perhaps not.

Some are trying to label this a bookend game: the final act in a dramatic rivalry that began on 28 May 1888.

That's unlikely. Rangers will still be around next season although it's impossible at the moment to predict where or in what form.

Yet even if the sense of closure is somewhat false there's reason for players and fans to view this as a big game.

Celtic, revelling in the role of conquerors, have a chance to drive home the feeling of triumphalism in front of a home crowd that will, surely, be high on the madness that swirls round their oldest rivals.

But what a boost a strong showing here would be for Rangers and their supporters.

Battling on a hundred fronts, swiping like punch drunk pugilists at enemies real and imagined, moving no closer to the resolution they crave.

Duff & Phelps, Rangers' administrators, have presided over a process that has delivered only delays and conditional bids, a process that has seen them look ever more like the boys who cried wolf, rescue packages still tantalisingly out of reach.

Today's match offers a 90 minute distillation of that drama, a game without tangible rewards but packed with enough meaning to ensure fans on both sides care more than ever.

How will it pan out?

I find predicting these things increasingly unpredictable, it's a game that can inspire some and leave others looking bereft.

The bookies though, and heaven knows my expertise is limited, would seem to be offering unusual generosity in their verdict on Rangers.

The club is, unavoidably, in a crisis of gargantuan proportions but recent form has seen the players show an admirable fortitude in the face of such ructions. We need look no further than the last Old Firm game to illustrate that an unknown future hasn't fulling snuffed out the danger that lurks in this team.

Fence sitting, as ever, suggests erring on the side of a draw but I'd still be surprised if Celtic don't win this one.

This, however, has been a season of surprises.

As the dust settles on the Old Firm game our attention can turn once again to the relegation travails of Hibs and Dunfermline.

Hibs fans are doing a fair impression of Michael Corleone at the moment. Just when they think they are out of the mire, Dunfermline pull them back in.

So it proved yesterday. A 3-0 win over Aberdeen was enough to give the Fifers their first home victory of the season, cut to three points the lead Hibs enjoyed and even make something a dent in the goal difference imbalance.

If Dunfermline wanted to switch the pressure back on to their fellow strugglers then yesterday was mission accomplished.

Hibs and pressure. What does manager Pat Fenlon see when he looks around the side that he's cobbled together with less than convincing results?

A team that can turn up Paisley today and deliver the riposte needed to halt any Dunfermline revival before it has properly begun?

Or a team that, like so many before them, St Mirren will see as easy touches, a welcome home three points to inject some fun into the dying embers of the season?

Hibs fans will hope he sees some resolve, sees the realisation dawning that his team have it in their gift to save themselves.

But those fans have been looking for the right answers to those questions all season long. Too often they've been disappointed.

Hope rather than expectation has guided emotion in Leith this season.

That continues today.

Another commanding performance from James McPake in defence, some incision from Garry O'Connor and Leigh Griffiths, something more cohesive from a misfiring midfield.

Deliver that and three points can be within reach today.

Fail - and they've failed a lot this year - and St Mirren have quality enough to prolong the suffering.

The stakes are high.

Time for the Hibs players to take a gamble and believe in themselves.

Even that might not be enough.

But they have to hope that it will let them crawl over the finish line.

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