Derby day debutants will hold the key for Celtic and Rangers in long-awaited Parkhead clash - Matthew Lindsay
MATCHES between Celtic and Rangers are rarely uneventful and never meaningless.
Even when the Scottish title has been decided, players are expected to give their all and prevail. There are always bragging rights at stake as well as the chance to lay down a marker for the following season.
Yet, the importance of the cinch Premiership encounter between the city rivals at Parkhead this Wednesday night is, even by the standards of the world-famous fixture, huge for both teams. The on-field action in the first midweek derby in 11 years promises to be incendiary. Hold onto your hats.
A victory for Ange Postecoglou’s men will be significant for them psychologically. They have made great strides forward since the Greek-Australian arrived in Glasgow back in June. But beating the defending champions will be an important milestone. It will increase their confidence they can reclaim the league trophy with their coach’s swashbuckling style of play.
A triumph for Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s charges will be of no less importance. They will not have any fans cheering them on in the 58,000-capacity stadium. So to come out on top in such hostile surroundings will bolster their belief they can retain their crown come May. It will also be big for their Dutch manager as it will be his first time in the dugout in an Old Firm game.
It is little wonder the match has dominated the discourse in Scottish football for weeks. Nor is it any great surprise that the final outcome is just too close to call. Celtic arguably had the better of things at Ibrox back in August. But they were unable to find the back of the net and Rangers were. Both sides have been good, bad and indifferent since.
The potential presence of several new faces – Postecoglou could give Cameron Carter-Vickers, Georgios Giakoumakis, Reo Hatate, Jota and Matt O’Riley a place in his starting line-up while Van Bronckhorst might involve Calvin Bassey, James Sands, Alex Lowry and new signing Amad Diallo from kick-off – add a layer of intrigue to an already fascinating contest.
Will they be spooked by the occasion or inspired? It could go either way. It certainly has over the years. There have been footballers who have been pitched into the madness and suffered nightmares. Others, meanwhile, have responded heroically and are still remembered with fondness by their fans to this day.
Ian Andrews, the ex-England Under-21 goalkeeper who was signed by Celtic from Leicester City for £300,000 in the summer of 1988, let in five goals against Rangers a month after moving to the East End. His confidence was shot to pieces and he failed to fully recover. He was loaned to Leeds United in December and sold to Southampton in February.
Players can certainly bounce back from bad experiences. Fernando Ricksen was famously substituted by Dick Advocaat after just 22 minutes of his bow at Parkhead in 2000. He had been turned inside out by Bobby Petta and the visitors were trailing 3-0 in a match they would end up losing 6-2. But the Netherlands internationalist put it behind him and won seven major honours here.
Rab Douglas, too, had an afternoon to forget just three months later. The Celtic goalkeeper picked the ball out of his net five times as Rangers avenged their earlier heavy loss in fine style. However, he would help Martin O’Neill’s men complete their first domestic treble in 32 years at the end of that term.
Lubomir Moravcik, his team mate in that all-conquering side, had shown flashes of his brilliance before he played against Rangers at Celtic Park in 1998. But the Slovakian midfielder’s inspired showing in a 5-1 victory just a fortnight after his £300,000 capture from Duisburg silenced those who had mocked his signing. Johan Mjallby also made his debut that day and would build on his positive start thereafter.
Hatate has impressed hugely in his two performances in Scotland to date – the wins over Hibernian at home and Hearts away - and opened his account with a long-range strike at Tynecastle in midweek.
But afterwards the Japanese midfielder admitted the “hot” atmospheres had “scared” him. Something may well have been lost in translation in his comments. Still, it will be interesting seeing how he fares on Wednesday evening.
If he shines once again alongside O’Riley in the absence of Callum McGregor and Tom Rogic, two on-form individuals with vast experience of matches against Rangers, then Celtic will ask questions of their opponents. If he struggles then their adversaries will control a vital area of the park.
Giakoumakis has finally shown why Postcoglou was keen to bring him here in August by scoring fine goals against Alloa and Hearts in the past seven days. Will the Greek striker get the better of Rangers centre half Bassey and provide the cutting edge in the final third that Celtic were lacking in Govan? Or will the Nigerian successfully nullify his threat?
With five substitutes once again being allowed in the Premiership, there could be as many 32 players involved at Parkhead this week. But how the debutants among them deal with the chaos and carnage that will undoubtedly ensue after kick-off will be key.