Maloney returns as Celtic seek to reclaim initiative

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Shaun Maloney returns to the Celtic first-team squad for today's Premier League match against Hibernian after more than nine months on the sidelines as his side try to reclaim the title lead from Rangers.

Celtic drew at Dundee last week while Rangers won to go top for the first time in a year.

Maloney, the 21-year-old striker, put a serious knee injury behind him by hitting the winner for the club's Under-21 side in midweek. His manager Martin O'Neill will also be able to call upon Alan Thompson and Chris Sutton after they missed the draw with Dundee last week through suspension. Stephen Pearson and Didier Agathe are fighting to be fit following groin injuries.

The Rangers manager Alex McLeish has nine players missing through injury or illness for tomorrow's game against Inverness Caledonian Thistle.

Peter Lovenkrands limped out of Thursday night's Uefa Cup defeat to AZ Alkmaar after appearing to pull a hamstring and he joins a lengthy injury list.

Also missing for the trip to Pittodrie are Gregory Vignal, Paolo Vanoli, Shota Arveladze, Gavin Rae, Steven Thompson, Chris Burke, Maurice Ross and long-term casualty Craig Moore. Michael Ball - who is two games away from triggering a clause which will mean Everton are paid £500,000 - is unlikely to feature either.

* Northern Ireland's hopes of arranging a World Cup warm-up game against Scotland on 9 February have been dashed. Their manager Lawrie Sanchez saw the friendly as ideal preparation for the game with England at Old Trafford in March, but the Scottish FA has no wish to play a match on that date.

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