Firm test for Celtic revolution

David Dick assesses the reawakening of a Scottish giant
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The Independent Online
OLD FIRM derbies are hardly placid affairs at the best of times. And when the stakes are high, passion can all to easily be translated into unpardonable ferocity.

Five years ago today, Rangers lost Mark Hateley, Terry Hurlock and Mark Walters to the red card in a Scottish Cup quarter-final while Celtic's Peter Grant went the same way. This St Patrick's afternoon, they face each other again in the most fervently anticipated Premier Division match for years and with Celtic within striking distance of the old enemy, the referee could again be busy.

Celtic trail Rangers by three points and 13 goals with eight games remaining. Such competitiveness is a novelty in Scotland, where Rangers are hoping for their eighth successive championship, drawing ever closer to Celtic's record of nine successive titles in the Sixties and Seventies. As for Celtic, since winning the Double in 1988 their highest League finish has been third, while last year's Scottish Cup was their first trophy of the decade.

This season they have returned to Parkhead after an unhappy stay at Hampden Park. Their immense "new" stadium is still only half finished but the club is in the midst of a long-awaited revival.

Tommy Burns's initial season as manager was littered with unconvincing draws as new players bedded themselves in, but even so they scraped their way to a cup victory, and Burns the scholar set about rebuilding his side.

He visited Barcelona, Juventus and Ajax, quizzing their managers and studying their training methods before asking over the Ajax coach Heine Otto to work with the youth team.

The results have been admired by many, not least his former team-mate Charlie Nicholas, last year a player in his side. "Tommy's changed the system," he said. "Last season was about work-rate, but now they are passing and moving in a more traditional Celtic style.

"Managers live and die by their signings and he has brought in some wonderful players. For me, the shrewdest buys will prove to be the full-backs, Tosh McKinlay and Jackie McNamara." For the outrageously small sums of pounds 350,000 and pounds 650,000 respectively, Burns has acquired a full international and, in McNamara, an Under-21 international tipped for greatness by all who see him.

"If Celtic are to win then these two really have to play," Nicholas continued. "In the modern game full-backs have more time on the ball than anyone else and Celtic will depend on them making their overlapping runs and providing the service for Pierre van Hooijdonk and Andreas Thom."

Celtic are defiance personified, dispelling any doubts cast over them. Many an expert ranted about their need for a goalscorer, prompting Van Hooijdonk to score 17 goals in 19 games.

Falling behind on numerous occasions, they have clawed back incredible victories, a habit that reached its zenith last Sunday when they trailed Dundee United by one goal with two minutes remaining; two minutes later, they were a goal in front.

Nicholas believes it is all down to self-belief. "They go into each game expecting to win, and as their unbeaten run grows so does their confidence," he said.

They have been beaten only twice in domestic competition this season, once in the League and once in the Coca-Cola Cup - but both defeats were at the hands of Rangers. Their other two meetings have been drawn.

Celtic enter the game as the form side as Rangers have stumbled, relying on two penalties, two own goals and two from Paul Gascoigne to win their last three games. The new signings Peter van Vossen and Erik Bo Andersen are still settling and will be ill-prepared for what faces them today.

"The atmosphere is incredible at the best of times but this is an exceptional case," Nicholas said. "They are big-name players and should rise to the occasion, but the game will run at 120 miles per hour. Having time to put your foot on the ball will be a rare pleasure and the pace might prove too much.

"Celtic play the better football and will come to attack, but Rangers will be well prepared and, in Paul Gascoigne and Brian Laudrup, they have probably the two finest talents in the country who can exploit any team on the break. It really is too close to call."

Whatever the scoreline , with Celtic on the field and seconds still left on the clock, you can be sure the game is far from over.