Hartson takes the heat off Henrik

Web hoaxer adds fuel to an already fiery affair. Phil Gordon says Celtic strikers prefer a different net
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The Independent Online

Noising up the opposition is something John Hartson has made a career out of, but for Henrik Larsson it is a new departure. If trouble has followed the fiery Welshman around, it has studiously avoided the taciturn Swede, yet today Celtic's odd couple aim to have the last word in every sense.

Victory over Rangers at Ibrox would end their rivals' last lingering hope in the Scottish Premier League title race. Hartson and Larsson, though, also have personal missions to clear their reputations. If Hartson was worried about monopolising the headlines after yet another tempestuous build-up to an Old Firm encounter, Larsson took the heat off him.

Some quotes attributed to Celtic's prolific striker appeared on the Feyenoord website thanking his former club for knocking Rangers out of the Uefa Cup. The words were fabricated – Larsson rarely talks and never contentiously – and later retracted with an apology from the Dutch club, but it was too late to soothe the outrage in the blue half of Glasgow.

Martin O'Neill could at least retain his humour, even though he knows the derby is an inflammatory affair which needs no added fuel. "My first reaction was, 'What, Henrik? That would be a surprise, because he's not even spoken to us for a week'," smiled the Celtic manager.

O'Neill says he has learned to discard stories in the countdown to a meeting with Rangers. "Something always comes out which makes the rivalry more intense," he explained.

Larsson could well take his revenge on the web hoaxer in his usual manner. Europe's top marksman has inflicted seven derby goals in the last two seasons. However, it is Hartson whom the Rangers followers fear coming back to haunt them.

The much-travelled Welsh striker could have been playing for them had it not been for a failed medical in August 2000. He spent a day at Ibrox, as he and Ronald de Boer were lined up as a £10 million hangover cure just days after the ignominy of losing 6-2 to Celtic.

It is the one subject the likeable Hartson does not talk about. He went back to Wimbledon, licked his wounds, overcame another failed medical which wrecked a move to Tottenham, before Coventry City bought him. His goals could not keep Coventry in the English Premiership, but were enough to persuade O'Neill to spend £6m bringing Hartson back to Glasgow.

Unlike most record signings, Hartson was given an unfamiliar role warming the bench. Chris Sutton was in the form of his life, while Larsson is simply irreplaceable. However, injury to the England player gave Hartson his chance and he seized it.

He and Larsson overcame awkward fumblings to learn each other's style. The partnership bore fruit, with Hartson contributing 19 of the 47 goals until a reckless red card a fortnight ago – for lashing out with his boot at Aberdeen's Jamie McAllister – brought all the old demons into the public eye.

"I have been trying hard to get rid of that side of my game," Hartson said last week. "The red mist just came down and the referee got it right, I can have no arguments.

"When I came to Celtic I think players expected me to be more aggressive because they had seen me on the television playing for my other clubs. I think they were surprised that I wasn't that fiery.

"Some of the papers brought up the old Eyal Berkovic incident [a training fight with his then West Ham team-mate] last week, but that was four years ago. I have grown in confidence since coming to Celtic, with my goals and my performances, and I have come out of my shell.

"Given the failed medicals, the Berkovic affair and the sending-offs, I think this last thing is just a blip." The other blip came last month, when Rangers won the League Cup semi-final between the clubs and Hartson was taken off to be replaced by Sutton.

"This is not about revenge, it's about beating Rangers full stop," he said. "I have played in a lot of London derbies at Arsenal and West Ham but nothing compares to the intensity of the Old Firm and that's why I'm looking forward to it."

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