THE Old Firm returns and Willie Duncan (@Willie_Duncan) has delivered a brilliant assessment on it here.
Celtic v Rangers | Saturday 12:00 | Sky Sports 2
“Anyone who understands football, understands that you can’t have yin without yang”, mused Alex Salmond in a recent episode of BBC Scotland’s “Scotland’s Game” series, chronicling the recent history of football north of the border.
Scotland’s former First Minister was, as it happens, referring to the rivalry between Heart of Midlothian and Hibernian in the context of the “Hands off Hibs” campaign in 1990 when then Hearts chairman Wallace Mercer tabled an offer to take over the Jam Tarts’ city rivals.
Salmond, however, could just as easily have been referring to Celtic and Rangers for the two Glasgow giants, as much as either side would be loath to admit as much, have really missed each other in recent years.
For the past four seasons, the two teams have been deprived of each other’s company – except, of course, for the occasion skirmish in Cup competitions – but on Saturday afternoon, the rivals are reunited on Scottish Premiership business for the first time since 2012.
Celtic are warm favourites to take all three points – and rightly so, for the Hoops have won each of their three league matches thus far this term – against Hearts, St Johnstone and Aberdeen respectively – in convincing fashion and, furthermore, the Hoops will have home advantage for this weekend’s renewal.
Rangers ran out as victors when these two teams last locked horns, with Mark Warburton’s men winning on penalty kicks in the Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden Park and the ‘Gers would have been able to lay claim to bragging rights even more emphatically had they not subsequently fallen short in the final against Hibernian.
A more pressing concern, however, for Rangers will be their erratic form in the run up to Saturday’s showdown in Glasgow’s east end.
Yes, Rangers remain unbeaten thus far this term, but narrow wins against Dundee and Motherwell, as well as unconvincing draws against Hamilton Academical and Kilmarnock will not give Brendan Rodgers cause for sleepless nights ahead of this match – and Mark Warburton will be acutely aware that his team simply must produce much better if they are to sink Celtic in this one.
One minor negative surrounding the Hoops is that they face Barcelona in the Champions League on Tuesday night, but there’s no chance that the home supporters will allow Rodgers’ men to take their eyes off the prize in a game of this magnitude.
The Hoops have scored 15 goals in just four domestic matches thus far this term – as well as five against Hapoel Be’er Sheva in the Champions League play-off tie at Celtic Park and there is no doubt that the home side possess a potent goal threat.
Leigh Griffiths, who sat out of Scotland’s 5-1 demolition of Malta last weekend, will almost certainly return to the fold for his club, but Celtic are not wholly reliant on the 26-year-old striker – who hit 31 league goals last term – to be the man to make the difference here.
The addition of Scott Sinclair, who signed from Aston Villa, and Moussa Dembele, captured from Fulham, means that the Hoops have a fine attacking arsenal at their disposal – and Rangers may just find the hosts too hot to handle.
Warburton’s defensive unit has been augmented by Philippe Senderos’ arrival, but the 31-year-old former Arsenal defender is barely blessed with pace and it is in this department, in particular, that Celtic have the capacity to hurt their rivals.
The midfield battle, too, will be caricatured as a battle between Barton and Brown – two men who certainly aren’t afraid to put the boot in – but those who have seen the ‘Gers this season will have noticed that it is Harry Forrester who has been the key man in the Ibrox engine room.
A big performance from the 25-year-old will certainly be vital for the visitors if they are to stand any chance of taking the points and, in Kenny Miller – who has, of course, played for both clubs – Warburton’s side have a striker who can be relied on to put the ball in the net should the chances fall his way.
Miller’s instinctive style was underlined when he grabbed the opening goal of the game in the Scottish Cup semi-final against Celtic last season.
Rangers, though, rode their luck against the Hoops that day as Ronny Deila’s side dominated – and poor Patrick Roberts, who seems most likely to have to settle for a place on the substitutes’ bench this weekend – is probably still having nightmares about THAT miss at Hampden.
Celtic have come out on top in six of the last 10 Celtic Park meetings between these two teams and I think that the Hoops could make it a magnificent seven by underlining their superiority on home soil.
I’ve spoken to Celtic and Rangers fans all week and, while the Hoops fans have the air of kids on Christmas Eve, those of a ‘Gers persuasion have a look in their eye that suggests that they know what might be around the corner – and that it’s not particularly pleasant.
It would, of course, be ridiculous to base a bet around the feeling amongst the fans of the clubs involved and, so, I’m certainly not going to be doing that – but I’d wholeheartedly recommend siding with Celtic this Saturday because, for my money, they are quite simply the better side.
However, the 5/8 quotes on offer for the Hoops to bag all three points are certainly skinny enough and better value can be found by digging deeper.
Rangers will take heart from the fact that Celtic have shipped seven goals in their last four competitive fixtures and, having scored in each of their last 11 competitive fixtures, Warburton’s men can grab a goal here.
The ‘Gers, though, will struggle to contain Celtic and it is the Hoops’ superior firepower that makes them such an appealing selection ahead of Saturday’s showdown.
Whether you think it’s an Old Firm derby or a Glasgow derby (and there’s no way that I’m wading into that particular debate), it’s got potential to be a cracker and backing the Hoops to be happiest after a goal-laden game is a path that could well lead punters to profit.