Old Firm rivals prepare for tightest of finishes

Scottish premier league: Just one goal separates Rangers and Celtic as the race for the title reaches a nerve-wrenching climax tomorrow
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Three days ago, the hottest tickets in sport were to be found in Seville. The 35,000 that worked their way into the hands of Celtic supporters for the Uefa Cup final was a minor miracle given the club's allocation, the fact that touts were asking - and getting - £1,000, and because just as many fans had travelled to the Spanish city without one.

Tomorrow, the prize tickets will be for Rugby Park and Ibrox Stadium. Touts need not apply; Scottish police take a very unhealthy view of that particular practice. It's free and live on television - but only if you live in Scotland.

BBC Scotland, which paid out £11m for the television rights to the Scottish Premier League, could not decide which game to choose for the final weekend of the season that sees Celtic and Rangers virtually inseparable. So they separated them. The BBC's Scottish branch paid an extra £400,000 to the SPL and will now screen Rangers live on BBC1 and Celtic live on BBC2, the first time terrestrial channels have done so in Britain.

You do not need to be an expert to appreciate the climax to the SPL season. Rangers and Celtic, the world's oldest football rivals, are locked together after 37 games, with the same points, the same goal difference and divided only by the fact that Rangers have scored one more, 95 to Celtic's 94, as they contemplate their final games.

Celtic must shake off the bitter disappointment of defeat by Porto in the Uefa Cup final and conjure up a performance to save their title at Kilmarnock. Rangers, in contrast, have a straightforward task of defeating Dunfermline - who have not won a league game against them in 32 years - by a healthy enough margin of goals to overtake the champions, even if Martin O'Neill's team should succeed at Rugby Park.

Nowhere in Europe this season has witnessed such a close title race. Hair's breadth is the only proper description. Rangers fans are now free to indulge in schadenfreude after their Glasgow rivals cruel defeat on Wednesday night, but they must have been secretly glad that Celtic went to extra time in the baking heat of Seville, if only because it would aid their interests.

"We know we have to get back on track," admitted the Celtic defender Johan Mjallby, "but I cannot lie. We are shattered and we don't know if we can lift ourselves." So, the Bhoys came within minutes of their first European trophy in 33 years. Now they could be within 90 minutes of a barren season. Holding on to the title they won for the last two years will be a motivation enough tomorrow, though the taunts from across the River Clyde are already echoing about having blown the lot.

Alex McLeish is not indulging in that kind of one-upmanship. However, the Rangers manager secretly knows he is the beneficiary of Celtic's emotional rollercoaster of a week. He is just one game away from bring the championship back to Rangers in his first full season at Ibrox and the hype surrounding his team has been non-existent - because Celtic have been the sole topic of conversation all week.

"The focus has been all on Celtic and we have quietly got on with our preparations all week," admitted McLeish. "However, we have always focused on our ambitions all season while people were getting caught up with the Uefa Cup."

McLeish joked that he even had a call from Sir Alex Ferguson looking for a ticket for tomorrow's game, but in truth his former manager at Aberdeen has been a source of real help. Ferguson knows that the task confronting McLeish is immense. "The target for any Rangers manager is to win the championship. The expectation levels are always high here."

His own bitter experience as a player has underlined that, too. In 1991 McLeish was captain of the Dons side that came to Ibrox on the final day of the league season ahead of Rangers on goal difference and needing just a point to win the title. Two goals from Mark Hateley gave it to Rangers instead.

"Rangers won it rather than Aberdeen losing it," the former centre-half reflected. "The crowd was really intimidating that day and I hope the Rangers fans are behind us in the same way against Dunfermline."

Over at Celtic Park, O'Neill spent yesterday still consumed by the injustice of Porto's bad sportsmanship rather than the title going to the wire. "If I was Rangers, I would be happy at us playing extra time and losing the way we did," he said. "The lads are very down. There is no disguising it. We simply have to lift them. All we can do is win our game and then worry about Rangers have done. We are working on presumption that they will win."

A day of tension awaits, as McLeish aptly predicts. "Usually, you don't worry about what your rivals are doing but this is different. It will be a day when radios become very important, to managers as well as fans."