De Boer war puts Rangers on back foot

They were queueing from before breakfast time on Friday for the hottest ticket in town. By lunchtime today, Rangers may find that Celtic's appetite for success has cleaned them out.

The ticket frenzy that took place at Parkhead had more to do with Ronaldinho than Ronald de Boer. Barcelona are genuine big fish, and their visit to the east end of Glasgow on Thursday in the Uefa Cup has consumed even the Old Firm encounter in terms of interest, as Celtic can testify as they try to disperse their 60,000 seats.

Uefa's bafflingly hectic schedule handed Celtic the game against the Spanish side just 16 hours after Martin O'Neill's team booked their place in the last 16 by eliminating FK Teplice last Wednesday. The siege on the box office by Celtic's 53,000 season-ticket holders was simply to guarantee their seat. There will be no public sale.

If Rangers needed any further evidence of their rivals' increasingly cosmopolitan tastes, this is it. One tabloid headline even taunted them that today's Scottish Cup quarter-final was "small fry". Such a downgrading is a bit like Gordon Ramsay - who has never looked back since swapping Ibrox for the kitchen - losing his Michelin stars, and Glasgow's intense rivalry has as much chance of being diluted as the ex-Rangers reserve has of keeping swearwords off the menu.

However, speaking your mind is not entirely Ramsay's preserve. Henning Berg probably took over the title from the chef of being the most outspoken player ever to wear a Rangers shirt when he launched a scathing attack on Alex McLeish last week.

Berg accused the manager of dropping him for Frank de Boer simply to help Dick Advocaat, the Holland coach, who played a key role in his former club fixing up the celebrated but ageing defender, to keep him fresh for Euro 2004. The claim that Advocaat was picking McLeish's team would have been a bombshell in a mundane week, but just a few days ahead of the game which could define Rangers' season was remarkable.

The sweet taste of last season's Treble has been replaced by the swallowing of pride. Celtic have virtually annexed the Scottish Premier League title by going 16 points clear, and Rangers lost their grip on the League Cup when Hibernian knocked them out in a dramatic semi-final from which Berg was dropped while Frank de Boer missed the decisive penalty.

Now McLeish's team head to Parkhead, clinging on to their last trophy but stripped of their dignity by the dressing- room split. For Craig Moore, the captain, who made his debut a decade ago in the heady days when Paul Gascoigne allowed Rangers to dominate their rivals, the role reversal is frustrating. "There's not been a great deal to shout about but it's a great opportunity for us to give the fans something to hang on to," reflected the Australian defender. "It's a game that can change our season for the better. The week has been a lot more intense than it would possibly have been for playing another side. This season has been very frustrating for everybody at Rangers."

That is in contrast to everyone at Celtic. Barcelona are now the latest obstacle to be cleared in the pursuit of a second successive Uefa Cup final, but Moore insists he is not green with envy at his rivals. "Obviously we were disappointed in Europe this season but I am pleased that Celtic have done well," he said.

"It helps the game in Scotland. It could turn our season around because you are against your biggest rivals, and to go out and give a massive performance and get a win it would not change everything that has happened this season, but I am sure it would make things a bit easier for some people for what they have had to sit through and watch this season."

O'Neill, of course, is not the type to go racing ahead of himself. When asked if Barcelona's visit overshadowed that of Rangers, he simply said: "I don't think anyone has ever gone into an Old Firm game with the attitude that it does not matter. We know Rangers will be dangerous. At this stage of the season, their points total in the League would be par for the course - it is our season which has been extraordinary."

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