Football: Lambert shows new teeth in Celtic revival

Phil Gordon meets the firm midfielder ready to tackle Rangers
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The Independent Online
PAUL LAMBERT could be forgiven for sensing a touch of deja vu as he contemplates tomorrow's Old Firm encounter. Except that the Celtic player has trouble remembering what happened in his last encounter with Rangers, never mind one two years ago.

It may be the last derby of the millennium for Glasgow's ancient rivals, but for Celtic the task is a hauntingly familiar one from the last dozen years or so: win or bust. John Barnes admitted after the 4-2 defeat at Ibrox in November that his team were playing catch-up, but that is something that has afflicted his numerous predecessors. Every Celtic manager for 12 years has approached the traditional New Year fixture - moved to 27 December because of you-know-what - pursuing Rangers.

Even Wim Jansen, the man who broke the cycle of failure when he brought the title to Parkhead in 1997-98, was staring down his rivals' exhaust. What prevented the Dutch coach from biting the dust was a crucial 2-0 win on 2 January, 1998. Defeat would have cut Celtic adrift; victory recharged their batteries to overtake Rangers. Barnes would love history to repeat itself.

For the man who provided the coup de grace that day, Lambert, it remains one of his finest memories. The Scotland midfielder is spartan with his goals, but when they occur they are undeniably spectacular. "It was my first goal for Celtic after signing for Borussia Dortmund," Lambert recalls of his 25-yard shot, "and I suppose it's the one of four goals that the fans remember, because it helped beat Rangers.

"Now we've got the same scenario as a couple of years ago. We have to win to drag Rangers back. If we can, then we will go into the winter shutdown with a one-point gap. Even though Rangers would still have a game in hand, we would have the knowledge that we will be breathing down their necks once the League restarts."

That Lambert can talk about the Old Firm, let alone play, is thanks only to the progress of dental surgery and a bank balance that allowed him to go private rather than wait on the NHS. Eight weeks ago he was stretchered off unconscious at Ibrox with severe facial damage after Jorg Albertz's knee crashed into his jaw. If the pain which followed was bad, it was minimal compared to the realisation that Celtic had paid through the nose for an incident in which Lambert had been the victim.

Lambert's tackle on Albertz turned the game. The penalty which was awarded allowed Rangers to draw level at 2-2 in first-half injury time, though television later proved Albertz dived in anticipation of Lambert's sliding challenge.

"I lost four teeth," Lambert says, pointing to the new bridgework. "People keep saying I made a reckless tackle, but I must be the first guy in the history of football to bring down an opponent with my jaw - that was the only point of contact."

What happened afterwards left a sour taste in Lambert's damaged mouth. Albertz is absolved of blame by the Celtic player, but not Rangers' manager. "I'm told that that Dick Advocaat was in the referee's room during the interval demanding I should have been given a red card for giving away the penalty. I was out cold on the stretcher in the dressing room, waiting for the ambulance, and he's trying to get me sent off. I don't have a problem with Jorg, he saw a situation and played for the penalty. He also apologised to me.

"But what Advocaat did still disappoints me. It is not professionalism, because my injury could have been much worse for all he knew.

"I cannot remember a thing about the game, not even the two goals we scored. I blacked out totally, although I have watched the tackle on video since."

Celtic took almost as long to recover as Lambert. Without their defensive midfielder - who was not permitted to play for a month, which is mandatory for all head injuries - they slumped to five defeats in eight games. It is no coincidence that his return three games ago was followed by a surge in confidence which brought 14 goals in those matches.

However, an Old Firm clash, as Lambert admits, is a better test of rehabilitation than successes against Hibs, Aberdeen and Dundee United. "People have said Rangers are still a bit of a stumbling block for us, and the results have proved that.

"With the exception of that New Year's game two seasons ago, we've not beaten them when it truly counted. But we've not had much luck either, as my incident proved. The spirit is back now in this Celtic team, but we need a break of the ball."

As if to underline this determination, Lambert's parting shot was unequivocal. "If I have to make the same tackle on Monday, I'll do it."