Call it whatever you want, but on Sunday afternoon much of the country will come to a standstill for a football fixture. A fixture, that regardless of how you choose to define it, is the only blockbuster event Scottish football has to offer. The derby world renowned as the ‘old firm’ returns to Hampden for the second consecutive year – after a three-year absence due to Rangers’ relegation to Scottish football’s bottom tier in 2012. With more social and footballing history worth discussing and a depth of passion often regarded as unprecedented by those who have played, managed and attended – the fervour surrounding these games cannot be replicated.
Last season’s meeting made a bit of a mockery of that build-up. Celtic’s 2-0 victory in the League Cup semi-final was one-sided, feebly contested and not gripping in any sense of the word – the polar opposite of everything you’d expect from such a clash. Goals from Leigh Griffiths and Kris Commons inside the first 30 minutes had Celtic on easy street, but rather than Celtic adding to that tally or Rangers mounting anything that resembled a fightback, the rest of the game petered out in truly lacklustre fashion. Rangers didn’t muster a shot on target all afternoon. A drab affair by all accounts.
Sunday’s encounter, however, promises to be much more closely contested. Rangers under Mark Warburton have a new lease of life and a very different tactical approach to that of Stuart McCall’s team that faced Celtic last season. Having already won the Championship to secure promotion back to the top flight, this will be the truest gauge of how Rangers have genuinely come. Warburton’s more fluid, attacking approach has reaped it’s rewards in the Championship – their goal tally is an impressive 83 from 32 games. Their domestic cup form has proven a contradictory marker of their progress though. A 1-3 defeat in the League Cup at Ibrox against St. Johnstone was an early season reminder that Rangers’ ascent to the upper echelons of Scottish football may not have been as easy as the initial fanfare around Warburton’s appointment suggested. Since then, however, victories against Kilmarnock and a 4-0 rout of Dundee have reignited belief that the gap to Celtic may not be so insurmountable after all.
Celtic, on the other hand, are churning out results towards their 5th domestic title in a row without any real scintillation. Since last season’s meeting, they have had engaged in another disastrous European campaign and blown another unique chance at a domestic treble by losing 3-1 to Ross County in the semi-final of Scotland’s other major cup competition. After dipping ever closer to Aberdeen in 2nd all season with indifferent form, Celtic are now 8 points clear of the Dons with any doubt that ever existed now replaced with the inevitability that they will secure the title at some point in the next three weeks or so. It’s hard to argue that Celtic have visibly improved from last season’s meeting at Hampden, but there are subtle reassurances for the Parkhead club. The form of Leigh Griffiths has been the undoubted highlight of the season, 37 goals and counting will be the best return from a Celtic striker since Henrik Larsson hit 41 in 2003-04. The January acquisition of Patrick Roberts from Manchester City is another crumb of comfort for Celtic. Roberts has proved to be a much needed addition to the wide area’s for Celtic, he is diminutive but tricky and evasive. The type of player you pay to watch – something Celtic don’t have an abundance of. With the return of four league meetings between both teams next season, this tie is just as important a gauge for Celtic as it is for Rangers.
The key battles on Sunday will be mental and physical as much as tactical. As is often the case in these meetings, football can become secondary to a war of attrition. Having said that, neither team is likely to be set up defensively so any physical battles may be fleeting if the game is open and free-flowing. The cliche is that the midfield battle is key to these games – as if it’s any more important than it is in any other game of football – but Scott Brown and Andy Halliday are likely to go to head-to-head as both players have a similarly fiery temperament. You’ll get long odds on both of them finishing the game without seeing a card of any colour. Rangers are likely to be without top scorer Martyn Waghorn, who will only make the bench if he returns from a knee injury, meaning Kenny Miller will almost certainly led the line. Up against Boyata and Sviatchenko, Miller may wish to get in a race with either rather than a physical battle. The same will be the case at the other end with Leigh Griffiths up against the pairing of Kiernan and Wilson, neither of whom will relish a race with the Celtic frontman. Lee Wallace and James Tavernier may find their usual attacking intentions curtailed by the threat of a Celtic wide players. Roberts and Mackay-Steven have been Deila’s most popular pick in recent weeks, however, Armstrong and Commons – both of whom have goal-scoring history against Rangers – might not be far away. Rangers are likely to go with Barrie McKay and Harry Forrester out wide, should the latter recover from the injury picked up on the Hampden surface against Peterhead last weekend. Bitton is likely to partner Brown in Celtic’s midfield, with the deeper of the two keeping tabs on Jason Holt. It’ll be interesting to see if Rangers are willing to let Celtic have the majority of ball or if they will go toe-to-toe in the belief that they have enough technical quality all over the park to match their opponents.
There is no getting away from the excitement this fixture conjures up. Nothing else can replicate the build-up, the passion or the atmosphere. And the inescapable truth that neither set of fans will ever fully endorse is how interdependent both clubs are on each other. Like a marriage on the brink of divorce, Celtic and Rangers can’t live with each other and yet can’t live without each other. The rivalry runs so deep that even those intent on totally disregarding the other end up perpetuating the very obsessions and comparisons they try to avoid. It’s inevitable and inexorable but intoxicating all the same. It’s the most exhilarating game to win and the most devastating game to lose. It takes everything we love about our sport and magnifies it tenfold. And it may well be irrational, but there’s something beautiful about the ability of a sport to cultivate the most intense of human emotions. You won’t find a finer example of that anywhere on the planet on Sunday afternoon than in Glasgow.