Fans from all over the UK and abroad will descend on Hampden today as Scotland's two biggest clubs face off against one another in the battle for the first silverware of the season. Celtic are still on the hunt for a domestic treble,after knocking out Rangers several weeks ago, in a match that was overshadowed by the antics of several Rangers players and the subsequent goading of Neil Lennon by Ally McCoist on the touchline.
For Rangers they can still win the double, but after being knocked out of Europe by PSV Eindhoven on Thursday, today will be important for the Light Blues. If they lose, they would have been knocked out of THREE competitions in the same amount of weeks.All the talk before the game will be about the Police involvement now, if any player steps out of line [set by the Lord Advocate] then they will be arrested. The fans will also have to lead by example also by not resorting to violence before and after the match, but as we know when alcohol is involved anything can happen.
The Police warned that anyone singing bigoted or sectarian songs will bearrested, but in my opinion it is just words, Strathclyde's finest will not descend into sections of the stadium to arrest fans guilty of singing such songs for fear of escalating trouble,and they will not do anythng at full time either. And we all know who sing such bigoted and sectarian songs.
And the final word on the 'trouble' surrounding the previous game. Nothing major happened on the pitch, in terms of violence, and I have seen worse scenes in recent years at Old Firm games, yet no summit then and the English FA, Politicians or Police have not called for a summit after numerous English football games led to fan violence on and off the park. Now why is that?
Celtic are on the ascendancy since the first derby game of the season, with Neil Lennon's record against Walter Smith at 4 wins, 1 draw and 1 defeat. However this is the first time that Lennon will face Smith with the chance to win silverware at the end of 90 minutes.
Celtic will be without influential defender Daniel Majstorovic, and will have to select Thomas Rogne or Glenn Loovens to partner Charlie Mulgrew in the heart of defence. With the Celtic support hoping that it is Rogne on the park, rather than Loovens who is a bomb scare waiting to happen when he dons the Hoops.
Lennon will also decide what formation and tactics to play against Rangers to try and outfox Smith or a fifth time.Will he continue to use the tried and tested system that has worked so decisively or will he change it?
The Bhoys should start in a 4-5-1 formation with Georgios Samaras as the lone striker. The Greek has caused problems for Rangers all season, and seems to get a boost from playing against the Forces of Darkness, which has resulted in the striker being awarded a new three year deal. Kris Commons should play on the left of midfield, the cup game against Inverness showed that Commons is not a right midfielder, working in tandem with Izaguirre at full back. The right midfield berth will be reserved for skipper Scott Brown and he will link up with full back Mark Wilson. In the heart of midfield, Joe Ledley, Kayal and Ki will try to dominate and dictate the play. And in defence, Izaguirre will be rampaging down the left as full back, Mark Wilson doing likewise down the right and Mulgrew and 'hopefully' Rogne in the heart of defence. With Fraser Forster in goal.
As for Rangers they will miss the protection Kyle Bartley gives to the defence, which is needed with veteran David Weir now looking more of a liability than ever, and Madjid Bougherra who comes out of position too many times for the liking of many a Rangers fan. The on loan Arsenal kid damaged his medial ligament in midweek against PSV, and in the same match Kyle Lafferty was stretchered off injured but could be fit in time for the game, while full back Richard Foster is cup-tied. The Light Blues do welcome back Steven Naismith from injury and he will be a big player for them this afternoon.
Despite Ally McCoist coming out and saying that Rangers will attack Celtic, they will not set out in a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 formation, they will as ever resort to a 4-5-1 formation, a tried and tested method for manager Walter Smith and a system that Celtic are happy to play against.
Neil Alexander will don the gloves for Rangers, and in front of him Madjid Bougherra and David Weir will play in the heart of defence, with Sasa Papac at left back and Steven Whittaker in the right full back position. Maurice Edu, Steven Davis and Naismith will play in the middle, with Naismith more of a link up player with the lone striker. El Hadji Diouf will play at right midfield once more, and will have to do more than complain to the referee during a match. At left midfield, I expect Gregg Wylde to keep his place thanks to his performance against PSV in midweek. And up front on his lonesome will be Nikica Jelavic.
Celtic (from): Forster, Wilson, Loovens, Mulgrew, Juarez, Izaguirre, Ledley, Brown, Kayal, Ki, Samaras, Commons, Forrest, Hooper, Stokes, Zaluska, McCourt, Rogne.
Rangers (from): Alexander, Bougherra, Weir, Whittaker, Davis, Edu, Fleck, Healy, Diouf, Jelavic, Naismith, Papac, Wylde, Hutton, Lafferty, Weiss, Hemmings, McGregor.
Head to Heads
Samaras v David Weir
Samaras will use his pace to try and exploit David Weir's lack of it, although the veteran will have Bougherra to protect him - if the Algerian is position that is. The Light Blues defence can be exploited as PSV showed on Thursday night time and again. However Samaras will have to rely on the link up play with the Celtic midfielders, especially Kris Commons, if he is to have another chance to pile on more misery. With a lack of pace, Weir will have to rely on those around him to make that up, the former Everton man will use his experience to try and snuff out Samaras, but manager Walter Smith showed how much a liability Weir was when he was subbed at half time against PSV, and Rangers played better for it, but without Bartley or any other central defender available, Rangers will have to use his services, however limited.
Outcome: While Samaras may or may not get on the score sheet, his pace will cause Rangers a mountain of trouble. However I wouldn't bet on Samaras being targeted on and off the ball, with some tackles flying in on the Greek.
Celtic Midfield v Rangers Midfield
In the past five games this season, Celtic's midfield have been dominant and I can't see that changing anytime soon. Rangers youngster Wylde impressed in midweek, but against the experienced Scott Brown backed up by Mark Wilson at full back, it will be a tougher test for the youngster, and he will probably be substituted at half time, with Lafferty coming on in his place.
The midfield heart of Rangers - Steven Davis and Maurice Edu - have been out of form in recent months, with the American gifting possession away too easily and against the likes of Kayal, Ledley and Ki, things can only get worse for the once influential pairing. The lack of numbers in the Rangers squad is now telling and the duo are feeling the fatigue now. As for Steven Naismith, he will probably be picked up by Kayal and with reinforcements stepping in if needs be. This is where Rangers can exploit Celtic, however one man can't turn the fortunes of a team around and the Rangers man could be fighting a lost cause.
And then there is El Hadji Diouf, despite his English Premier League credentials, he has not delivered much in the big games and has been disappointing in terms of his performances. He will be up against Kris Commons backed up by Izaguirre if needs be, and the Celtic man has been the most influential of the players that will take to the field today. Diouf is not a tackler nor is he good at tracking back, and Commons could find enough space down the left as Diouf sticks out a petted lip at the referee when a decision doesn't go his way.And that is guaranteed to happen.
Outcome: Celtic midfield will dominate this match once again, and the only way Rangers can try and snuff them out of the game is to fire long balls over their head to Jelavic. Walter Smith has tried this on several occasions but it has failed, however this won't stop them from using it again.
Jelavic v Celtic Defence
The Croatian striker is a talent,and at over £4 million you expect him to be. However his season has been blighted by injury. Today will see him out on his own once more, a role that former Rangers striker Kenny Miller thrived on, but one that Jelavic does not suit at all.
Mulgrew and Rogne/Loovens will be around Jelavic - like flies on sh*t - and even if does manage to control the ball, they will be at his heels to do the simple thing and knock it away from danger. The whole Celtic backline must work as a team to nullify the threat of Jelavic and Naismith coming from midfield.
Outcome: If Rogne partners Mulgrew then Celtic's defence will come out in top. However if Loovens is selected then anything can happen as the Dutchman is far too inconsistent and a liability at times.
As ever it will not be an easy match for either side, however with Rangers' increasing fatigue and the lack of bodies to come in, Celtic's strength in numbers and fitness could be the deciding factor. Not to mention their ability on the ball to quickly pass it around the pitch. If Celtic manage to keep the ball on the ground and pass as they can do, then the Bhoys should come out on top.
Prediction: Celtic 2-0 Rangers