O'Neill keeps minds focused on showpiece occasion
Martin O'Neill insisted yesterday that the Scottish Cup final is too big a stage to be consumed by Larsson-mania.
The Celtic manager believes his team will be properly focused on today's encounter with Dunfermline Athletic in the simple pursuit of the trophy for the 32nd time, rather than worrying about Henrik Larsson's last competitive match in Scottish football.
"Henrik would not want it to be any other way," said O'Neill, who was as moved as his player was last Sunday when 60,000 paid such homage to Larsson after his last league game game at Parkhead, so much so that the striker broke down in tears.
"That finale could not have been scripted any better. However, if we start looking upon this as a farewell game, we would be in trouble. It is a showpiece occasion. Our concentration is completely on this."
Larsson, not surprisingly, is included in the Celtic line-up and O'Neill revealed that even though his side secured the Scottish Premier League title weeks ago, the Scottish Cup final holds an equally powerful sway on emotions. He won the trophy in 2001, beating Hibernian as part of the Treble, but was denied the Double in 2002 when Rangers won the Cup final 3-2 with Peter Lovenkrands' last-minute header. "You like to finish the season on a high and even though we'd won the league title in 2002, it was a long summer to dwell upon defeat after we lost to Rangers."
One of the men who will be on the bench today, Johan Mjallby, was told by O'Neill yesterday that he can have another year at Parkhead - if he wants. The Sweden captain was poised to leave like his compatriot when his contract expires in June, but after a season curtailed by knee injury, O'Neill has offered Mjallby an extension after Euro 2004.
Dunfermline have a doubt over Darren Young, who has a hamstring injury, while an ankle problem rules out the striker Noel Hunt. However, the club, which had an impressive pedigree in the 1960s - three finals and two semi-finals in seven years, feel they can create an upset.
"Martin's team are the big favourites with the bookies, and rightly so," Jimmy Calderwood, the Dunfermline manager, said. "But, we got a big boost winning at Parkhead a few weeks ago, just as we did from beating Rangers for the first time in 30 years earlier this season. We want to enjoy the final but we will enjoy it more if we win."
Calderwood is known for his bold tactical moves that have, in the past, included using four men up front and he is not about to turn his back on that philosophy at Hampden. "We need all of our players to be at their best to have a chance but we have also got to have belief in our ability, get our tackles in and hope our players don't freeze on the big occasion.
"Recently, we held a reception at East End Park for the 1961 and 1968 Cup-winning sides. My players know they could still be famous 30 years from now if we win this one."
Dunfermline (probable, 3-5-2): Stillie; Skerla, Tod, Byrne; Bullen, Nicholson, Mason, Dempsey, Derek Young; Crawford, Brewster.
Celtic (probable, 4-4-2): Marshall; Agathe, Balde, Varga, McNamara; Petrov, Lennon, Pearson, Thompson; Larsson, Sutton.
Referee: S Dougal (Scotland).
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