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Rangers can break away as Celtic rest

Tommy Burns last night defended his gamble of putting Celtic's championship chase on hold for 10 days as fans argued over the psychological significance of two postponements.

Celtic have given Rangers the opportunity to open a 17-point gap at the top of the Scottish Premier Division as they pursue a ninth successive title. Now arguments will rage over whether Burns has made the right decision in requesting that the Scottish League postpone matches against the two bottom sides in the table.

Matches against Kilmarnock at Celtic Park tomorrow and at Raith on Saturday have been called off because of World Cup call-ups for Jorge Cadete and Pierre van Hooijdonk.

Van Hooijdonk was named yesterday in the Dutch squad to face Belgium at the weekend, and Burns immediately activated the rule that allows postponements if a club has two players called away on international duty.

Rangers, eight points clear at present, would stretch their advantage to 17 if they won at Dundee United tomorrow and at home to Dunfermline on Saturday and Kilmarnock next Tuesday, 24 hours before Celtic travel to Dunfermline.

Burns sees his decision not as a risky business but "the obvious and right course of action" in the wake of Saturday's defeat at Motherwell.

Alan Stubbs, who had flu at the weekend, will have recovered for the trip to Dunfermline and Phil O'Donnell, out for much of the season, could also be back by then. Jackie McNamara, who has a hamstring problem, and the club captain, Paul McStay, will miss fewer matches following the ruling.

Paolo Di Canio's one-match suspension, which the Italian was due to serve at Raith on Saturday, will now be held over until the visit to East End Park. The Scottish League last night rearranged the match against Kilmarnock for Wednesday 8 January, and Celtic's trip to Raith for Tuesday 14 January.

Celtic issued a brief statement after yesterday's decision, Burns saying: "With the entire strike-force unavailable through international duty, this is the obvious and right course of action to take and the reason the rule was created in the first place, so teams in this position are not penalised as a result of providing players for international duty."

Walter Smith, the Rangers manager, was as diplomatic as ever, insisting he will carry on considering the gap to be eight points until that particular figure changes in relation to Celtic's games in hand, but few can doubt that if Rangers open up a 17-point lead, Celtic will face immense pressure at East End Park on Wednesday week against Dunfermline.

Geoff Scobie, a Glasgow University psychology lecturer, could see arguments for and against the decision by Burns. "There are two aspects to it - the players and management, and the fans," he said. "I suspect it may not be a bad thing for the Celtic players. Their morale took a blow at Motherwell over the weekend and, with two of their top players away, their confidence could have been dented further for the matches against Kilmarnock and Raith.

"But I think supporters are affected by the points gap, and if Celtic fall 17 behind it will undermine confidence among supporters. There have been cases in recent years of clubs with games in hand catching a rival, and you need look no further than Manchester United overhauling Newcastle last season when the difference was 12 points at one stage."

Malky Mackay wants to stay at Celtic despite reports that West Brom want him. The defender has turned down moves to Partick, Hibernian and Dundee United over the last year and is determined to fight for his place at Parkhead.