WILLIE DUNCAN’S (@Willie_Duncan) weekend NAP arrives on Sunday from the Scottish League Cup semi-final contest between Old Firm rivals Celtic and Rangers.
Celtic v Rangers | Sunday 14:15 | BT Sport 1
Following last month’s 5-1 thumping at Celtic Park, Mark Warburton could have been forgiven for hoping that it might be a while until his Rangers side came up against Brendan Rodgers’ outfit again.
Sunday’s Scottish League Cup semi-final between the two teams at Hampden Park offers Rangers a chance for redemption – and the Blue half of Glasgow have the happiest memories of the last time that these two teams locked horns in Cup competition.
Rangers claimed a memorable penalty shoot-out win in the last-four of the Scottish Cup last season following a pulsating 120 minutes at the National Stadium – and there’s no doubt that Warburton, his players and the fans will settle for a similar outcome this time around.
Celtic, though, are an entirely different animal under the stewardship of Brendan Rodgers. The soft, vulnerable underbelly that was seemingly ever-present – particularly on the big occasion – during Ronny Deila’s reign appears to have disappeared and the Hoops will be confident of inflicting yet more misery on their bitter rivals.
The odds compilers clearly feel that there is a chasm between the two teams, for Celtic are chalked up as 8/13 (William Hill) favourites to win inside 90 minutes, with just 1/3 (Ladbrokes) available on the Scottish champions securing their place in next month’s final.
Rangers have certainly worked on their defensive discipline since that chastening defeat – four clean sheets from their last five outings is testament to that.
But it remains to be seen whether the significant gulf in class that was so ruthlessly exposed in that league meeting in Glasgow’s east end could have been closed – or, at least, narrowed – within the space of just six weeks.
Those convinced that Rangers can turn the tables on their rivals this weekend will surely snap up the juicy 5/1 (Bet365) quote on offer for Warburton’s men to be winners this weekend – while Rangers are as big as 14/5 (Marathon) to squeeze into their second successive domestic final at the expense of the Hoops.
There were, of course, six goals scored when these two teams most recently renewed their rivalry; Rangers have found the net in 14 of their 15 competitive matches this season, while the Hoops have been in free-scoring form, notching an impressive 33 goals in their 10 domestic matches.
And, so, plenty of punters will be desperate to back a glut of goals ahead of this one.
The return from injury of Leigh Griffiths, who missed out on Celtic’s 5-1 win against Rangers last month, will further augment the attacking options available to Rodgers ahead of Sunday’s showdown.
The striker, said in some quarters not to be tall enough to make an impact at international level (which leaves some interesting questions unanswered about whether Lionel Messi would ever get a game for Scotland), has certainly never come up short in the goalscoring charts, having hit 40 goals for the Hoops last term and Griffiths may well have a say on Sunday.
Of course, Rangers learned the hard way in this fixture that Griffiths is not the only Celtic player who knows his way to goal; Moussa Dembele hit a hat-trick against Warburton’s men in September, while it is safe to suggest that Scott Sinclair’s transition to Scottish football has been somewhat smoother than a certain high-profile midfielder who joined Rangers this summer.
Celtic’s remarkable strength in depth in striking positions is just one of the reasons that they are such strong favourites to not only win this tie, but to sweep all before them in Scotland this season.
With just 11 goals from their opening nine top-flight tussles, Rangers cannot rely on someone to put the ball in the net with the alarming regularity that Celtic can and that lack of firepower could well be their downfall in this Cup clash.
Warburton’s men have managed more than one goal in just three of their nine top-flight tussles so far this season, winning by more than one goal on just a single occasion, whereas Celtic have scored at least twice in seven of their eight league games and notched 15 goals more than Rangers in the Premier League, despite playing one fewer fixture thus far.
A curious statistic, however, shows that just one of the last seven matches between these two teams in Cup competitions has seen more than two goals scored at the end of 90 minutes.
Furthermore, should the case for the defence need further strengthening, it is worth pointing out that neither side has conceded a goal in the League Cup so far this season – with Rangers winning to nil on five occasions, while wins against Motherwell (5-0) and Alloa (2-0) were enough to secure Celtic’s place at Hampden Park.
Prior to the 5-1 win earlier this season, Celtic had kept a clean sheet in each of their previous six victories against Rangers and the odds compilers offer a tempting 2/1 (188BET) that the Hoops are able to come out on top without conceding – a feat Rangers have not achieved in this fixture since 2010.
Celtic fans will have been delighted with what they saw when this rivalry was most recently renewed and, although Rangers have been better at the back than they were before they visited Celtic Park, it’s hard to see anything other than happy Hoops this weekend.
Rodgers’ side have been fantastic in front of goal so far this season and I can see Celtic claiming a comfortable victory over their Old Firm rivals for a second successive time on Sunday afternoon.
For that reason, it is the 17/10 (888) quote on offer for Celtic to win by two or more goals that is the recommended play for punters.
The selection would have landed in each of Celtic’s last three victories in this fixture and, at 17/10, it is well worth backing again ahead of this semi-final showdown.
Celtic v Rangers – Celtic -1.5 Asian Handicap (17/10 888)