Desmond Kane

Momentum the prize for Old Firm Cup victors

Desmond Kane

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His retirement may be imminent, but the roguish Robbie Savage continues to sport an encouraging flaxen mane. The Welshman gets stuck into his hairy outings as a pundit with as much animation as he did during his prime years playing the game.

Savage formed a nutritional partnership in midfield with the Celtic manager Neil Lennon during some gilded days scurrying around Filbert Street with Leicester City several years ago, but appears to care little for his old companion's current job lot.

Ahead of Rangers' match with Sporting Lisbon in the Europa League last midweek, Savage compared his own mischievous traits to those of the Glasgow side's forward El-Hadji Diouf, yet failed to recognise the wider complexities of the Scottish Premier League.

The Derby County player was of a mind that a hobo could be brought in from the cold to manage Celtic or Rangers, and lead them to second place in the SPL. Or sentiments to that effect.

Such an experiment of Trading Places was almost tried last season when a pale Tony Mowbray suffered a gruesome eight-month posting in the guise of manager of Celtic, who were bound to be second best long before the coach departed.

Without the need for such savage comments, second place for a manager of Rangers or Celtic in Scotland remains nowhere. Lifting the League Cup and Scottish Cup is never enough to harden the heart of a devoted fan when battle and league are lost.

That is not to say the Scottish Cup does not matter. In a season when they are exchanging vows seven times, every second counts. With four fixtures down from their seven scheduled in a beleaguered saga, Celtic and Rangers are beyond the keystone of the bridge, but the loser tonight could yet be the biggest winner.

Despite meeting with what some might describe as monotonous regularity - they make the Oxford v Cambridge Boat Race toffs feel like a fresh idea - their share of the seasonal silverware will not be decided tonight. 

The replay in the fifth round of the Scottish Cup at Celtic Park should be worthwhile viewing if only to extinguish some of the delusional junk that has been spewing forth from various nooks and crannies in recent days. The Scottish game continues to be blighted by untruths amid such an exhaustive series of dalliances between two frazzled warriors.

Celtic did not suddenly become a bad side because they lost to Motherwell in the league on Sunday, but neither were they the football version of the Harlem Globetrotters for sticking three goals past Rangers, who meekly bowed to the home team's wishes a week earlier. As always in an environment where falsehoods can quickly become legend, the truth lies somewhere in between.

Rangers endured a soulless afternoon in shipping three goals at Celtic Park, but have recovered their gait in ousting Sporting from Europe before wallowing in a 4-0 league win over St Johnstone. There is no need for them to slink into Celtic Park worried that fate will conspire against them.  

Past papers suggest Walter Smith will play it conservatively on his travels to Celtic Park, reverting to a European-proof 4-1-4-1 or 5-4-1. Too much is made of such tactics if a team fails to turn up. Smith's main priority must be for his side to impress themselves upon the match, rather than be reduced to the role of dazed onlookers.

Rangers were as ineffective at Celtic Park last Sunday as Celtic were in Motherwell a week later. Neither team will wish to subject their respective supporter bases to such a lousy experience so soon after the last one. 

Smith has never needed advice on how to unseat Celtic in such fixtures. His business plan must include questioning Celtic's full-backs when they fall back. Emilio Izaguirre and Mark Wilson have been given the freedom of Ibrox and Celtic Park in the past two derby matches. The roaming Izaguirre has been a fine purchase for £600,000 or thereabouts, but is not Danny McGrain. Defensively he can be got at as the dashing Motherwell player Chris Humphrey illustrated on Sunday.

Whether or not Celtic's minds were on the match in Motherwell is irrelevant. During his days as manager of Rangers, Graeme Souness used to say that the same three points were available for beating Celtic or Hamilton, a viewpoint that continues to hold true. The direction of the season could yet hinge on happenings away from Scotland's most protruding club fixture, but it remains easy to become lost in overstating the value of these gatherings.

The buffoonery and brilliance of Scott Brown has attracted talk before this match, but the Celtic midfielder is not a figure the visiting side, like him or loathe him, should be overly concerned about. 

If Motherwell can reduce Izaguirre to attacking rubble, Rangers must surely sense they can do likewise. Sasa Papac and Steven Whittaker have appeared to be on Mogadon in the past two derby matches. Whether or not Richard Foster is installed with Whittaker shoved into midfield, more must be demanded of the visiting full-backs.

Diouf enjoyed a fine outing against Sporting. He scored a goal and was a tireless scroundel in Lisbon, but at times there was too much space between the midfield and the forward areas. This can resemble an act of negligence as a match progresses.

It would not be remiss of the average Rangers follower to wonder how the home team would try to tame a loaded forward pairing of Diouf and Nikica Jelavic. Whether such a question will be posed is a moot point. 

Celtic's defeat to Motherwell may be a timely reminder that they remain a work in progress. There will be nobody believing their own publicity after such a bleak Sunday. Getting tagged in deepest Lanarkshire was a chastening experience for all concerned.

Lennon will hope it is a minor blip rather than the natural inconsistency of a youngish squad. Celtic's safest option in defence remains Thomas Rogne keeping an eye on Daniel Majstorovic's lack of movement. Rogne looks like a natural choice in central defence after Charlie Mulgrew's gruesome ball-watching antics in Motherwell.

Celtic enter the match as favourites having downed Rangers twice in the league. Rangers won the opening league match of the season at Celtic Park with a draw at Ibrox in their opening Scottish Cup quarrel.

With Celtic Park deemed a neutral venue when Rangers won an Old Firm semi-final there in 1998, the Glasgow side have not won away from home against Celtic in 108 years in this tournament. History remains a dangerous instrument to rely upon when seeking portents of Spring.

Celtic managed a 2-0 win over Rangers at Celtic Park in the quarter-finals two decades ago only to be emptied out 4-2 by Motherwell in a replayed semi-final. Tonight's winner goes forth to visit Inverness in the quarter-finals, an outpost where Celtic have perished in the past. Trying to call a winner with any degree of certainty remains hazardous, whatever is said to the contrary. 

The final of the League Cup and a match in the league remain on the agenda after the embers of this evening's fifth Test match fizzle out. No clean sweep or 'treble' of Scotland's trophies will be available to the losers, but there is a considerable benefits package attached to winning.

Momentum remains a priceless commodity in any walk of life.

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