Sunday is the first game between Celtic and Newco Rangers, and it’s one a lot of people have been looking forward to it. I am not one of them, especially as the media refers to it as an “Old Firm” game, a tag which brings up a lot of negative feelings, writes James Forrest.
Nevertheless, this is a League Cup semi-final and one where, for the Parkhead club, there’s a lot at stake. Ronny Deila, in his first season in charge, has taken a lot of criticism – much of it unjustified – in both the press and in the stands, but if he can reach a cup final this early, as well as being top of the table, and still in Europe after Christmas … well, he’ll be one step nearer to acceptance.
The football has been turgid at times. That’s hard to deny. But every manager has those kind of games, even those with £100 million football budgets and reputations to match. There have been other times when the good stuff has flowed like beer, and we’ve beaten teams with finesse and aplomb and in those games you see glimpses of what he’s trying to do.
Certain partnerships have begun to gel, like the one on the left hand side between Izzy and Stokes, and whilst every Celtic fan would probably prefer to see a winger in that spot, with Stokes in the middle, when it has worked it has been stunning.
More importantly, there is a midfield partnership, in Brown and Johansen, which, when it clicks, is superbly effective. These guys should be able to dominate the game, if on form. Added to that, Jason [Denayer] in the back line alongside Virgil, and with Lustig almost certain to start, there’s little doubt that, back to middle, we’ve got enough to win this game with room to spare.
The big question is who starts up front, of course.
A couple of months ago, when the draw was made, playing Guidetti would have been a no-brainer. Now, in the middle of a bad run of form and with talks over a permanent move to Celtic Park seemingly stalled whilst he explores other options, there’s an argument for leaving him on the bench and going with Leigh Griffiths, which I think would be deadly for the Ibrox side.
Griffiths is a tremendous player, and I have no doubt that if he matures even a little bit he will be at Celtic for years to come and be the next player at the club to hit 100 goals. I’ve been a fan for years, since he was a kid at Dundee, and when he fell out of favour at Wolves I thought the decision of our scouts to recommend him to Lenny was probably the easiest they’ve ever had to make.
Scepovic, I like. He clearly has something. You can see it in little moments when he’s in the team. He needs regular games though, and this one has come too early for him, I think. I look forward to seeing him nail down a starting place before the season ends … but for this match we want to go with the tried and the tested, and Leigh has experience in playing in the white hot atmosphere of a local derby, in Edinburgh, and he would be my preferred front man.
There is no way in the world that Ronny Deila will leave Kris Commons out of this match. I don’t know if Kris will sign a new deal or not but I do know that this is the kind of game where he excels. His experience, his eye for goal, the way he plays the ball on the deck, this will give the Ibrox club nightmares.
I’ve watched them a few times this season, most notably in the twin demolitions at the hands of Hibs, and in their games against Hearts, where they’ve, frankly, looked out of their depth and unable to cope. It is a travesty that they’ve managed to beat Premiership clubs on the way here; serious questions ought to be asked at both Inverness and St.Johnstone about how their sides actually lost to a side that, even then, was reeling and rocking.
They will certainly play three in the middle of the pitch, so Brown and Johansen will have their work cut out for them. Yet one suspects that their team selection might offer some opportunities, because if, for example, Ian Black plays there’s a chance that Celtic’s captain can wind him up and then watch the detonation.
For me, I can’t conceive of a scenario where the Ibrox club gets anything from this game except, perhaps, salvaging a little pride at keeping the score respectable.
What will haunt their supporters in the run up to the game will be their performance against Hibs recently where they were not beaten as much as soundly thrashed.
If they turn in a similar display, and Celtic show up on the kind of form that destroyed Dundee Utd, whipped Hearts and crushed Thistle then this could be a day people are telling their grandkids about. Much will depend, of course, on attitude, but as far as the strengths of the two teams is concerned, the gulf on the pitch is a wide as that which exists off it.
I’m going for a Celtic win by three. At least.