O'Neill claims rivals have edge

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Martin O'Neill, the Celtic manager, claimed yesterday that Rangers have the advantage going into the latest Old Firm meeting in the CIS Insurance Cup quarter-final match at Ibrox.

Martin O'Neill, the Celtic manager, claimed yesterday that Rangers have the advantage going into the latest Old Firm meeting in the CIS Insurance Cup quarter-final match at Ibrox.

The Bank of Scotland Premier League champions have won a record seven consecutive matches against their arch rivals. But Celtic are without Chris Sutton and could also be without Stilian Petrov and Bobo Baldé, who have shoulder problems, for the short trip across town, news which prompted Neil Lennon to describe Rangers as "slight favourites" going into the game.

Celtic were fortunate to beat Kilmarnock on Saturday and their defence looked shaky, while Rangers have recovered from a disappointing start to season with some impressive displays, most recently a 4-1 win at Livingston on Sunday.

O'Neill insists that form counts for nothing in the derbies but he believes that, if any team has the advantage going into the cup game, then it is Rangers. "Rangers are at home and any advantage going that's one," he said. "There is never too much between the two sides regardless of current form which probably applies to most derbies. I have been involved in a number for a few years and I look forward to the games with excited apprehension.

"I am delighted when we win and and not best pleased when we lose the game. We have recently got a decent run against them. But that can change overnight, but we go there with plenty of confidence. Every single time we play Rangers it's a big test, regardless of form, and hopefully it's the same for them."

O'Neill also shrugged off the importance of their seven-match winning run against Alex McLeish's men, claiming that his players would not know how many games they had won.

"If you ask the players I wouldn't be sure they would know we have won that many times on the trot," he said.

O'Neill also ignored the early season talk of a crisis at Rangers and uncertainty over McLeish's future as manager since their disappointing exit from the Champions' League. The Ibrox side have moved to within four points of the league leaders and the Celtic manager insists he always knew they would find their form at some point during the season. O'Neill said: "They are obviously winning football games which is a major boost for any club. They are doing very well at the moment and I'm not sure it was as pessimistic as was made out before.

"We have got one or two problems but we have got another day and we will have to look at them. I don't think Chris Sutton has got any chance and we will see how the others go."

That means the striker John Hartson will again be an important player for Celtic tomorrow night. O'Neill said: "His form in recent weeks has been absolutely terrific. He is very important to us and is thriving on the responsibility."

Juninho could also come in from the cold after a disappointing start to his new career. O'Neill has left him out in recent weeks and he is pleased with the way the Brazilian playmaker has reacted. "I know over the season he will do exceptionally well for us," he said. "He is just beginning to get to grips. He is a top-quality player and will fit into any system. He is a Brazilian World Cup winner and he will come roaring back without a doubt. He wants to do very well for the football club. I am told that it took Henrik Larsson a bit of time to settle and he did more to repay the transfer fee. Juninho cost nothing."

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