Old Firm ready for showdown

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The Independent Online
Scottish football

DAVID McKINNEY

Ibrox tomorrow will be no place for those of a nervous disposition. Stout hearts and steely determination will be required in the stands as well as on the pitch as the most important Old Firm showdown for several years takes place.

Rangers have won the league title for the past seven yearswhile their great rivals have been floundering and have only recently put together the resources capable of matchingRangers.

Yet their own success makes Rangers vulnerable to attack. Even their captain, Richard Gough, has admitted this season that they cannot continue to win the league forever but he and his team-mates have one aim before they concede defeat: to equal then overtake Celtic's nine in a row sequence of the 1960s and '70s.

Until now Rangers have been dominant, repelling with apparent ease the challenges from Motherwell, Hearts and Aberdeen in recent seasons, but the three-point lead they carry into tomorrow's game is a slender advantage against a resurgent Celtic side.

The two clubs have lost only three games between them as is once again being dominated by the big two. Yet both managers this week played down the importance of an occasion the supporters see as all-encompassing. "This is not a title decider, although a six-point advantage with just seven games remaining would be an attractive one," Walter Smith, the Rangers manager, said.

Smith must juggle his team selection. For long periods of the season the skills of Brian Laudrup and Paul Gascoigne have carried Rangers through vital matches and Smith must now decide if Ally McCoist, the club's goal machine, is ready to start a game after a couple of reserve appearances on his comeback from injury.

Smith might also look to Gordon Durie for goals, although it is questionable whether he will be match fit after a five-week injury lay-off, while Erik Bo Andersen could be in line to play his second game for the club.

However it is the loss of Gough through injury which will be felt most by Smith. "That is a situation we have handled and we have seen Alan McLaren fill the breach remarkably well," Smith said.

The game provides a contrast of styles, with Rangers pitting their power game against the stylish football of Celtic whose manager, Tommy Burns, declared himself happy to be involved in such a game.

"No matter what I say the fans will place every importance on the outcome of this game. For years we have been on the outside looking into big games now we can go in and make an impact on them ourselves."

However, when asked what pressure he felt going into the contest, Burns said: "After what happened in Dunblane this week, none. Everybody should be able to understand why I can say that. No matter what I say or what you write, we all know that Jock Stein was perfectly right in what he said - it is only a game.

"We all tend to get ourself into such a state about having to win this game or that game or if we lose this one it will be a disaster. It will be nothing.

"Both clubs will go on and improve after this match, whether we win or Rangers win. Both clubs will continue to make progress."

Burns is likely to bring back John Collins from injury while Tom Boyd should return to the defence following a three-match suspension, possibly at the expense of Brian O'Neil.

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