Scotland: Celtic boosted for 'game you can't predict'

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The Independent Football

As someone who once owned a betting shop, Martin O'Neill was on safe ground yesterday with the claim that you would have got long odds on Celtic and Rangers meeting in the third round of the Scottish Cup.

It was the second successive occasion that the Old Firm had gone into the hat, only to find themselves locked together by fate. Rangers enjoyed an extra-time victory in the League Cup quarter-final just two months ago. Furthermore, Celtic ended Rangers season last March by winning a quarter-final in this competition. Throw in their meeting in the 2002 Scottish Cup final and you understand why the derby is so intense.

Yet O'Neill never tires of winning. "Each Old Firm game has to be taken in isolation," said the Celtic manager as he planned his side's defence of the trophy they won last May.

"People always try to make up all sorts of statistics, but you can never predict this game. I didn't envisage the events of the last one [when Celtic had two men sent off] when it came so soon after a meeting that had been peaceful. I just hope this one is where the football lives up to the hype." Rangers halted a run of seven successive derby defeats by winning twice within ten days - on league and cup duty - in November.

O'Neill secured a huge psychological boost yesterday by securing his top scorer, John Hartson, on an extended contract. The 29-year-old Welsh striker - who had an offer to move to Germany - signed a new two and a half year deal to June 2007. "It is like signing a new player," said O'Neill. "John has been in devastating form this season." Celtic will be without their other talisman, Neil Lennon, who is paying a heavy price for picking up a booking in the dying minutes of last season's final against Dunfermline.

Rangers are likely to be without their new signing, Thomas Buffel, who joined just two days ago from Feyenoord in a £2.3m move. "I don't know if I am ready," said the attacking midfielder. "The Dutch league had a winter break. If not, it's better that you don't play."