Football: Old Firm close to striking right note

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The Independent Online
Celtic . . . .0

Rangers. . . .0

GLASGOW and flamboyant forwards go together like whisky and a glass. From Jimmy Johnstone to Mo Johnston, many of the highlights in the fecund histories of Rangers and Celtic have come from those who wore the higher numbers on their blue shirts or white shorts. The first Old Firm engagement of the Premier Division season pitted an old entertainer against a new pretender as Charlie Nicholas and Duncan Ferguson confirmed the continuation of Scotland's tradition for attacking flair.

The scoreline that emerged from the terrace tumult and breathless football at Parkhead did little justice to the contributions of either Ferguson, on his Rangers debut, or Celtic's Nicholas, reflecting more the quality of defending. 'Gough and McPherson are top-notch internationals, but I still felt I gave them a few problems,' said Nicholas, who also singled out his side's central defenders, McNally and Galloway, for their solidity.

Ferguson was clearly not match-fit after a five-month lay-off yet still produced a pair of stinging drives which Pat Bonner excelled in keeping out of the home net. A true target man, Ferguson's height, above-par technique and exuberant self-belief make sense of a British record fee of pounds 4m, whatever the doubts about his inexperience and off-field shenanigans. The 21-year-old's potential for club and country is obvious, although his manager, Walter Smith, was being cautious, commenting only that: 'I'm sure once he gets a few games he will start to pick up'.

At the other end, the 32-year-old Nicholas showed that the only element of his champagne repertoire that time has taken from him was a yard of pace. His close control, and positive approach work, whether dribbling or running into space, were a constant delight to his disciples in the Jungle (still a vocal force despite being newly all-seated).

Nicholas had a poor, injury-troubled season last term, managing only two goals in 16 League appearances, but his current mood is upbeat. 'I'm prepared now to make runs in behind people and I feel that I've got something extra back,' he said.

Both contrasting strikers embodied their team's front-line: Ferguson, like Mark Hateley, always presented a threat in the air while Nicholas, alongside Frank McAvennie and John Collins, favoured the more measured build-up but could have done with a touch of Ferguson's opportunism near goal. The feeling among the few neutrals was how much more effective both attacks would be if they were mixed up, allying height and muscle to sleight of foot and thought.

When Ally McCoist returns to fitness, Rangers will have the better balanced attack and Motherwell's tenure of top spot may appear simply a short- term loan arrangement from the champions. Nicholas and Celtic, though, promise Rangers a rougher ride this time.

Celtic (4-3-3): Bonner; Boyd, Wdowczyk, McNally, Galloway; Grant, McGinlay, P McStay; Collins, McAvennie, (Payton, 65), Nicholas. Substitutes not used: O'Neil, Marshall (gk).

Rangers (4-4-2): Maxwell; Pressley, Wishart, Gough, McPherson; Murray, Steven, I Ferguson, Huistra (Durrant, 61); Hateley, D Ferguson, (Hagen, 83). Substitute not used: Scott (gk).

Referee: D Hope (Erskine).

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