Celtic seek inspiration against old rivals

David McKinney on the weekend's Scottish Cup semi-final action
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The Independent Online
For any team in Scotland to win a trophy these days, the accepted wisdom is that they must first beat Rangers. That is the task awaiting Celtic as they prepare for their Tennents Scottish Cup semi-final against their greatest rivals tomorrow.

Celtic approach the game as the holders of the famous trophy, but in the knowledge that they have failed to record a win over Rangers in five games so far this season. The two have been neck and neck in one of the most exciting championship races for many years and, while many see this as the final before the final, Aberdeen and Hearts have enough confidence in their own ability to suggest that the winners at Hampden tomorrow will have to work hard to become the eventual cup holders.

The Old Firm game dominates the weekend, with Celtic facing the prospect of finishing empty-handed in a year when they have turned the clock back to produce performances reminiscent of their glory days in the 1960s. Last Monday, they demolished Aberdeen 5-0, a result which sent shock waves through the Scottish football scene and, while the circumstances of the season demand that Celtic must now hope the Dons can do them a favour by taking league points from Rangers, as preparation for a tense semi- final the match was a good one - according to Tommy Burns, the Celtic manager.

"The greatest confidence boost any team can get is to beat a quality side like Aberdeen by five goals and to play as well as we did," he said. "There has been little to choose between ourselves and Rangers this season and, while we will do our utmost in the game, we might also need a bit of luck. We are well aware that this is Celtic Football Club and our supporters turn up to be entertained - and also to see us win."

Burns will again look to the resurgent midfield play of Peter Grant, who has emerged from the dark shadows of Celtic's barren seasons to produce some of the best football of his career. So much so, Burns has indicated, that Grant would be his choice as Player of the Year.

Nevertheless, the key to victory for Celtic will be in creating chances, something they have failed to do in several of their games against Rangers this season. Rangers will await a fitness test on Richard Gough, their captain, before deciding their line-up and, with a five-point lead in the league, Rangers know they would take a giant step towards the league and Cup double with a victory.

"The league title would be the most important prize for both sides," Walter Smith, the Rangers manager, said, "but at the same time both will obviously want to win this one. We won't worry about Celtic's win over Aberdeen because we will concentrate on our own game and on causing them problems."

If Celtic supporters recognise the necessity of beating Rangers to lift a trophy, the players of Hearts have a different battle to fight - against self-doubt - against Aberdeen at Hampden today. Five recent semi-finals have been lost, some to apparently inferior opposition such as Airdrie and St Mirren. Jim Jefferies, the Hearts manager, this week looked for evidence that things could be different this time.

"We are slight underdogs for Saturday, which will suit us," he said. "There's a big thing being made of this game because we are desperate to win the Cup for the first time in 40 years, but if we play as well as we can we will cause Aberdeen problems. I would disregard their defeat by Celtic because it will make them more determined to do well at Hampden."

For John Robertson and Gary Mackay, the game represents a final opportunity to get within touching distance of silverware while Edinburgh hopes will rest mainly on the liberal sprinkling of quality youth at the club.

Aberdeen will welcome back Stewart McKimmie from injury with Roy Aitken, their manager, commenting: "It's all about how we perform on the day and Monday night's defeat is the last thing on my mind.

"We are the only undefeated Cup team in the country, having won eight ties, and now we are looking for nine.

"My side will show their character at Hampden and this game is going to be all about ability and character - and that is something we have shown that we have."