Celtic and Rangers will lock horns SEVEN times this season, and we are only into Clash Four. So is it getting tedious yet? Can an Old Firm game ever become tedious?
The battle lines are drawn and Rangers will cross the frontier that splits Glasgow down the middle to try to break down the doors of Parkhead trying to secure all three points at the home of their greatest rivals, once more.
Back in October, Rangers triumphed 3-1 at Parkhead, thanks to two goals from Kenny Miller and an own goal from Celtic defender Glenn Loovens. Celtic scored through Gary Hooper but it was nothing more than a consolation. The New Year derby saw Celtic travel to Ibrox and two goals from Georgios Samaras earned Celtic all three points and the bragging rights. And on the 6th of February, both sides tackled one another in the Scottish Cup Fifth Round and had to settle for a 2-2 draw, despite coming back twice with ten men, with the replay at Celtic Park on the 2nd March - the FIFTH Glasgow Derby between the two sides.
Celtic are currently five points clear of Rangers at the top of the SPL, but Rangers have two games in hand. Celtic are on a 16 game unbeaten run, while Rangers are unbeaten in their last six matches.
The last Old Firm match was overshadowed by the spat between Rangers' El Hadji Diouf and Celtic skipper Scott Brown. And all because Brown wound up Diouf throughout the match, even more so when Diouf was posted missing as Brown curled a left footed shot in the bottom corner of the Rangers goal to equalise, before turning and celebrated in the face of Diouf. An act he got booked for, with it being deemed an inflammatory act. But isn't all celebrations of a goal an inflammatory act against the opposition? But is standing in the middle of the pitch not moving, raising your hands in the air, and not doing any other motion or saying anything to the player in question - is that any different to a player running along the touchline with his finger to his lips mocking the opposition fans. That can be conceived as incitement to riot could it not? Yet how could Brown's celebration?
Speaking of Diouf, he can expect a hostile reception at Celtic Park. Not just because he is a Rangers fan, but of an act he committed as a Liverpool player in 2003 when he spat on a Celtic fan. Despite his controversial and sickening past exploits, Madjid Bougherra backed his team-mate, “You see him in the last game he was very professional and did not react.”
However the atmosphere at Celtic Park is different to that of Ibrox. For Rangers fans it is a hostile environment, with fans baying for blood, swearing and demanding their side break the legs of every Rangers player. And vice versa for Celtic players. Can he really handle that? We shall have to wait and see.
Celtic have been given a welcome boost with the return of Thomas Rogne and James Forrest from injury. Although Cha Du-Ri, Shaun Maloney and long-term casualty Andreas Hinkel are still posted missing. And Spanish midfielder Marc Crosas left for pastures new this week heading off to the Russian Premier League to play for FC Volga.
For Rangers, the Ibrox side will welcome back Steven Naismith and Nikica Jelavic after the pair missed out the midweek Europa League draw against Sporting Lisbon. Youngster Jamie Ness could miss out due to injury, while Kirk Broadfoot is still out injured.
From the Dugout
Celtic manager Neil Lennon said, "Every Old Firm game is different. Both teams have their own personalities and sometimes it can get a bit feisty but there is nothing wrong with that, as long as it doesn't spill into something outrageous. Basically you want to keep 11 players on the pitch. I think it's too tough to call. The form we have shown has been pretty consistent but you can't call an Old Firm game and this one is no different.
"In the first game the players didn't do themselves justice, it probably took a bit to familiarise themselves with the fixture and occasion. But certainly in the last two games they have shown a lot of character and bravery."
Meanwhile his counterpart Rangers manager Walter Smith said, "I think sometimes, the way teams play, it is slightly easier to sit back and break away. Certainly, we found that in the first game at Celtic Park. The same thing happened here - Celtic defended very well here and broke away, albeit we would consider it to be an error from ourselves that contributed to the first goal. You obviously go into the game not wanting to lose and to try to win - as we did earlier in the season. I don't think there has been a great deal between the teams overall. The two Old Firm games that are left will be important factors in the title race."
Despite Celtic being at home and in front of a partisan crowd, I expect Neil Lennon to go 4-5-1 with Gary Hooper as the lone striker. Fraser Forster will start as ever in-goal, with a back four of Mark Wilson (Right Back), Daniel Majstorovic (Centre Back), Thomas Rogne (Centre Back) and Emilio Izaguirre (Left Back). In midfield Joe Ledley, Ki and Baram Kayal will play in the centre, with skipper Scott Brown on the right and Kris Commons on the left. With Gary Hooper playing in the lone striker role.
And you can bet on seeing the likes of Georgios Samaras, Anthony Stokes and James Forrest taking to the field.
For Rangers it will be business as per usual. Walter Smith will set out in a 4-5-1 formation playing out his 'Waltenaccio' system. Sitting back and allowing Celtic to attack and then launch a counter attack to try to catch the Celtic defence out. Allan McGregor will don the goalkeeper's gloves. Richard Foster will take up position at Right Back, with Sasa Papac at Left Back. Madjid Bougherra and David Weir will play in the centre of defence. In midfield will be Steven Davis, Maurice Edu and El Hadji Diouf with the latter further forward linking up with the lone striker. On the left of midfield will be Kyle Lafferty and on the right Steven Naismith. Nikica Jelavic will take his place as the lone striker.
As with every Old Firm match, there will be bookings a plenty, one or two controversial decisions, late tackles, crunching tackles and players getting in one another's faces. The referee WILL have to be strong and the experienced Iain Brines should know how to control the game, but as with everyone even the referee is susceptible to getting carried way in the moment and I do expect a red card or two to be dished out.
Given Celtic's current winning streak, that they have home advantage and Rangers' recent performances, I can see Celtic running out victors, but it won't be an easy win. Despite Celtic's defence looking shaky at times, they still have the best defensive record in the SPL conceding far less than Rangers and we could see a clean sheet, with Forster looking to make amends also for his red card in the Cup game. It will be a struggle, a battle and for the neutrals that's what they want. For the Old Firm fans they want the bragging rights, they want their team to demolish the opposition, to be able to mock their opposite numbers and there will be plenty of singing and chanting that's for sure. Certainly of the unsavoury kind.
Score: Celtic 2-0 Rangers.... Commons and Hooper to score for Celtic.
And I shall end with highlights from the New Year derby match to get Celtic fans in the mood, not that you need it.
Andy Muirhead is the Editor of Scotzine.com and produces the Scottish Football show The Final Whistle for Pulse 98.4FM. He also works on a freelance basis and has contributed to the Daily Record, The Scotsman, the Daily Mail and hasfeatured on BBC Radio Scotland and Sports Tonight TV.