O'Neill wants extra game to prepare for Uefa final

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The Independent Football

Martin O'Neill, the Celtic manager, is hoping to arrange a weekend friendly to help his injured players shape up for the Uefa Cup final. His team have a blank weekend ahead after their penultimate league fixture, at home to Dundee, was brought forward to tonight.

Dundee had agreed to the switch to give Celtic a whole week to prepare for the match in Seville with Porto. But now O'Neill finds himself in need of another competitive workout to test the fitness of a number of key players.

The Celtic striker John Hartson, the midfielder Alan Thompson and the goalkeeper Robert Douglas are all struggling for tonight but are sure to declare themselves ready by next week. Chris Sutton, Joos Valgaeren and Johan Mjallby have just returned to first-team action and Magnus Hedman and Steve Guppy are also close to comebacks.

O'Neill was in a similar situation himself while at Nottingham Forest and ended up being left out of the side by Brian Clough for the 1979 European Cup final. He said yesterday: "We might try to organise some sort of game this weekend, as competitive as possible. That is in my thoughts at the moment but it will depend on what happens tomorrow night. It's not ideal but we have to accept that."

The Rangers captain, Barry Ferguson, has been playing for months through the aid of pain-killers and O'Neill conceded that whatever team he fielded next week would be unlikely to be in mint condition.

"There are one or two of our lads who have been playing through the pain-barrier in the last couple of seasons and one or two that are doing so at the minute," he said. "In a 38-game season – and it was 42 games in my day – if you were properly fit for 16 of those games you could consider yourself as having a really good season injury-wise."

In previous seasons the final visit of Dundee has been a low-key event and the Dees' win at Parkhead two seasons ago had been achieved at a time when the championship had already been wrapped up. Not so this time however, as Celtic know that nothing short of victory will keep the pressure on Rangers, who lead on goal difference and are not in action until Sunday when they travel to Hearts.

And O'Neill said that Jim Duffy's much-improved Dundee side was just the sort of team that could provide an upset. He said: "They have played very well since the mid-season break and they are in the Scottish Cup final. They have taken points off us and Rangers in recent weeks and will come here with no fear."

O'Neill acknowledged that the Dees could be significant players in the Scottish game in the future. He said: "I think Jim deserves great credit for galvanising them. They had probably been as skilful as any side but just lacked consistency. It has been a terrific turnaround."

O'Neill pointed out that Rangers were also facing a difficult penultimate league fixture. He said: "Rangers go to Tynecastle on Sunday and that won't be easy. But we cannot rely on anything else than winning our game. The week won't count for anything unless we win."

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