Rae ignites Rangers' Old Firm fire

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The Independent Online

It took Alex Rae 17 years finally to taste the one occasion he wanted more than any other. Then, like the proverbial Glasgow buses, three come along at once. The veteran midfielder will make only his ninth appearance for Rangers today since his summer move from Wolves. Yet, remarkably, this will be his third Old Firm encounter.

It took Alex Rae 17 years finally to taste the one occasion he wanted more than any other. Then, like the proverbial Glasgow buses, three come along at once. The veteran midfielder will make only his ninth appearance for Rangers today since his summer move from Wolves. Yet, remarkably, this will be his third Old Firm encounter.

If Rae's influence on this crucial Scottish Premier League duel matches that of his previous meetings with Celtic, then he could have Ibrox in the palm of his hand once more.

The 35-year-old was credited by the Rangers manager Alex McLeish with being the catalyst for the CIS Cup success over their great rivals 10 days ago.

Rae had just returned from a three-month absence after tearing his calf muscle when the sides met at Parkhead in August. Yet not only did he provide the steel that McLeish wanted, he managed to last 112 minutes of a frenetic cup tie that spilled into extra time.

A repeat today would see Rangers trim Celtic's lead in the title race to just four points and there is no doubt who will be the first name on McLeish's team sheet. "Maybe the manager only signed me for these games," Rae joked.

McLeish signed Rae on a free transfer, after a decade in England at Millwall, Sunderland and Wolves, because he sensed the boyhood Rangers fan, who was released from the Ibrox set-up as a teenager by Walter Smith, had a better idea than most of his cosmopolitan roster of players what it meant to be on top in Glasgow.

"I always came up to Glasgow to watch the games when I was in England," Rae said. "Last season's record against Celtic was abysmal. It must have been hard for the players but I know it was even harder for the fans." A run of seven successive defeats against Martin O'Neill's side was ended by the recent cup victory. "We needed that win, because if we had lost again it would have hit morale here. The first game between us, at Parkhead, was very close too. It was just that Celtic won it with a wonder goal by Alan Thompson. However, we wanted to win that cup tie more and I have no doubt that Celtic will come out all fired up for this one now that we've beaten them."

Rae played in several North-east derbies with Sunderland. "I thought going to Newcastle was intimidating but the Rangers-Celtic thing has got much more spice," he said.

Rangers will be able to select Nacho Novo after the striker's red card for violent conduct at Hibernian last week was quashed on appeal. Celtic have a pressing engagement on Wednesday in the Nou Camp, against Barcelona in the Champions' League, but as far as O'Neill is concerned this occasion could actually help his preparations for meeting the Spanish league leaders.

"A game of this magnitude is exactly what we are looking for before Barcelona," said the manager. "We need to play a really high tempo game before another expected high tempo game. An Old Firm game is exactly what both sides need before a European week."

O'Neill will be hoping to have Chris Sutton - who missed the cup defeat - back, and will decide which goalkeeper to use from the pair who faced each other on international duty on Wednesday; Scotland's David Marshall or Sweden's Magnus Hedman. "Magnus needs some games and David has not been out of the limelight for some considerable time," he said.

O'Neill insisted he would not put too much store in losing out in extra time 10 days ago. "Our League record in the four years I've been here has been pretty good and the CIS Cup defeat was far from a mortal blow."

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