Once again, Scottish football’s collective attention has turned firmly to Glasgow, as this season’s Scottish Cup semi-final will play host to Scotland’s most fiercely competitive game – the Old Firm derby.
Though rare in recent years due to Rangers’ calamitous financial meltdown, the Old Firm derby still stands as the most hotly anticipated game of any Scottish football season, and this year’s game brings with it a palpable sense of tension – especially given Rangers’ scintillating display in the quarter finals against Premiership side Dundee, and Celtic’s uninspired performances this season. Rangers fans will hope that their side can cause an upset against the Premiership leaders while Celtic fans will expect nothing less than a victory against their bitter rivals.
In contrast to last year’s Scottish League Cup semi-final, there is a much more genuine hope among the Rangers faithful that their team could pull off what would, admittedly, be an upset. Mark Warburton has worked wonders since his arrival at Ibrox, and has put together an exciting side full of promising young players mixed in with the few experienced old heads necessary to any good developing football team. The side running out at Ibrox is almost unrecognisable to the disastrously awful side that appeared under Ally McCoist’s ill-fated stewardship. Since taking the reins, Warburton has worked to develop a team that plays attractive, flowing football and attempts to play their opposition off the park, rather than the erratic and inconsistent football that was plied last season. This has lead Rangers into a seemingly unassailable lead at the top of the Scottish Championship and has won back the favour of a largely disillusioned fanbase, who have grown increasingly dissatisfied with both the running of the club off the field and the performances on it.
However, it would be either a wild optimist, a naïve armchair pundit, or a fanatical Bluenose who would question the fact that Celtic remain favourites to progress to the Scottish Cup final. Despite a string of lacklustre performances this season, Celtic still have a comfortable grip on first place in the Scottish Premiership. While last season’s player of the year Stefan Johansen may currently be playing in a manner reminiscent of the lad who shows up 20 minutes late to your weekend 5-a-side game without boots and obviously worse for wear from the night before, their team is still packed with enough quality performers to justify their favourites tag. Leigh Griffiths may be one of the most easily disliked men in Scottish football but his ability to nick crucial goals is undeniable and left-back Kieran Tierney looks an incredible prospect at only 18 years of age. That said, Celtic’s defence has been, to be generous, shaky this season and this may present a real opportunity for the attacking flair that Warburton’s Rangers have cultivated this season. Harry Forrester has been a revelation in his past few games, providing a real threat both from crosses and running at the opposition. Likewise, winger Barrie McKay and fullbacks Lee Wallace and James Tavernier provide a series of dangerous wide options for Warburton to utilise. The one worry may be the reliance on veteran campaigner Kenny Miller after injury ruled out star marksman Martyn Waghorn, although new signing Michael O’Halloran has previously played as a striker and has demonstrated his eye for goal, notching his debut Gers goal in only his second appearance.
Celtic remain the favourites then, but there is real cause for Rangers fans to believe that their team can go one better than last year and emerge victorious from a cup semi-final with their Glasgow rivals. A win would be a real vindication for Gers manager Warburton, while anything less than a win would be a real blow to counterpart Ronnie Deila. Whatever the outcome, it should be a fascinating match for neutrals and fans alike.
Image courtesy of Brian Hargadon