Desmond Kane

Old Firm play ‘World Series’ of football

Desmond Kane

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Neil Lennon and Celtic came across Sporting Lisbon at Fenway Park, the traditional home of baseball's Boston Red Sox, on their tour of the US last summer. Rangers opted out of the possibility of facing Celtic in a friendly at the home of the multiple World Series winners due to logistical reasons, but the Glasgow clubs suddenly find themselves involved in their own depiction of the 'World Series'.

The World Series in baseball can run to seven games. Celtic and Rangers will have met seven times in a season for the first time before this particular, panting campaign draws its final breath. Celtic's manager Lennon has described the scenario as "torture". You can get too much of a good thing in any walk of life. 

It seems difficult to accept the baseball term 'World Series' as little more than a gimmicky moniker dreamt up by advertising bods looking to oversell the importance of the competition. Contrary to folklore, the series was never named after a newspaper that sponsored the championship in its formative years. 

The World Series has not withered with time, but in the ongoing search for Veritas, how can such a term be justified when the sport is contested only between teams from within North America, one wonders? A similar mantra applies to the emaciated face of Scottish football. 

With three games played and another four to go in the final four months of the season before the parchments are handed out to the winners of the Scottish Premier League, the Scottish Cup and the CIS Cup (the traditional League Cup), the slogan 'SPL' is starting to look like a misnomer, almost certainly a case of false advertising. There would be no need for Saatchi and Saatchi to dream up the slogan 'Scottish football isn't working'.

During a 4-0 beating by Barcelona in La Liga, fans of the Spanish club Deportiva La Coruna unveiled a banner that read: "No Queremos Otra Liga Escocesa" - "We don't want another Scottish League". The Spaniards need not worry. Barcelona and Real Madrid have yet to feed off each other seven times in a season.

The Scottish game is what it is. A domestic treble remains a possibility for both of the Glasgow sides after another hectic episode of their tribal tête-à-tête on the city's southside in the fifth round of the Scottish Cup on Sunday that contained the usual helping of marauding men and midfield moil, while being interspersed with goals from Jamie Ness and Scott Brown that were items of real beauty.

A 2-2 draw forces a replay between the clubs at Celtic Park on March 2 to decide who visits Inverness in the quarter-finals. The pair are due to contest the CIS Cup final on March 20 at Hampden Park with two more league games scheduled, the first one on February 20 at Celtic Park with the second at Ibrox in April or May. All to play for, and all that jazz.

As always, there is little to separate the two. In three matches concluded, there has been a win for either side, and a draw. As always, it is unwise to make knee-jerk reactions when analysing the state of play on the basis of one game.

Rangers were certainly outplayed for large swathes of their latest coming together which, quite astonishingly given their historical dominance of the game in Scotland, was the first time the sides had met in the Scottish Cup at Ibrox in 47 years.

Celtic fell 2-1 behind and lost a man when goalkeeper Fraser Forster was red-carded, having been deemed to have taken out Steven Naismith before half-time. Steven Whittaker duly converted the penalty, but the moment strangely seemed to have an adverse effect on a solemn home side.

It was a red card, even if Naismith went to ground rather easily. The Rangers forward was caught out in trying to repeat the trick in the final 15 minutes when he was sent off with a second booking for diving as both teams wound up a player down. Not that his red card had made much difference with Celtic enjoying the unexpected luxury of large dollops of possession, despite being one man worse off.

Apart from the teenager Ness's raging opening goal from 35 yards out, the main positive Rangers can take from the afternoon is that they did not lose out. They will surely struggle to replicate such a level of reluctance in the remaining derbies of the season.

Having reached half-time holding a 2-1 lead, a man advantage and apparently all the aces, their tactics were obviously to allow Celtic to play in front of them before bringing their full-backs into play by hitting at pace on the break.

The normally forceful Sasa Papac and Whittaker were forced to defend, which did not sit well with the rest of the team's shape. Opposing full-backs Mark Wilson and Emilio Izaguirre, a figure who was apparently watched by the attending Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, camped out in the home half for most of the second period.

Defending is fine, but you have to offer some sort of offensive alternative. Rangers struggled to do both with any degree of certainty in the second half. The visiting side were rarely exposed.

When the Rangers manager Walter Smith coached Rangers to nine straight Scottish titles and the cusp of a European Cup final in his first period at the club over a decade ago, Rangers would tend to soak it up, but they could also give it out.

The Rangers assistant coach Ally McCoist, a record goalscorer against Celtic in his pomp, intimated that his side had failed to follow instructions given at half-time as Celtic's 10 men binged on an astonishing 67 per cent of possession. Over 43,000 home followers grew increasingly grumpy over viewing such a disturbing spectacle.

In these dark, debt-ridden times when Lloyds Bank have their paws all over the club's movements in the transfer market, the last thing season-ticket holders need is to be left short-changed.

How Rangers could have done with Kenny Miller's presence as the lone striker to trouble the 10 men. While his old club were toiling to make any advances, Miller was scoring two goals for Bursaspor. Miller has helped himself to three goals in as many games for the Turkish champions to go with the 23 he scored for Rangers before being sold off for £400,000.

Rangers either wouldn't or couldn't attack Celtic's 10 men with the required gusto to identify progress in the ancient competition, but life is constantly evolving in trying to work out who has the upper hand in Old Firm fixtures. It is dangerous to make assumptions.

Rangers went into their second SPL fixture of the season on January 2 as favourites after riding roughshod over Celtic in a 3-1 victory at Celtic Park in October.

They were mugged 2-0 that day by Celtic's counter-attacking ploy and two goals from Georgios Samaras, who was left to fend for himself as a lone forward. On Sunday, there was no need for Celtic to be so cautious. With enough bodies available in what is quite a dense squad, the visiting side luxuriated in enough options that they could afford to leave Anthony Stokes and Samaras on the bench.

Until he was withdrawn due to Forster's red card, they also had the common touch in the form of Kris Commons, who joined Brown in scoring a fine goal. Commons is proving to be a real bright spark since his move from Derby County.

Rangers do not have such reserves. As captain David Weir pointed out beforehand, his side have not enhanced their squad in the transfer window. El-Hadji Diouf - who showed glimpses of quality and potential to be a loose cannon in his exchanges with Brown - David Healy and Kyle Bartley have merely replaced Miller, James Beattie and Andy Webster.

Occurrences elsewhere over the weekend will surely remind the Rangers management team that they are going to need some luck to see out this season in the manner in which they crave.

The news that Lee McCulloch will miss the remaining games of the season with a knee injury is a sizeable blow to Rangers given his commitment to the side over the past few seasons.

They cannot afford to take too much more punishment if they are going to negotiate a path to riches with a hectic fixture list on the horizon that will see them take on Sporting Libson in a couple of Europa League matches in February.

The feeling that Miller's departure will prove to be the pivotal moment of the season continues to be given credence on days such as Sunday. Can Rangers afford to take 23 goals out of their squad and win the SPL for a third straight season?

"If Miller is allowed to leave for Birmingham, or even anywhere else for that matter as the predators circle, then Gers can forget about the title," said the former Rangers goalkeeper Andy Goram at the outset of January. "It really is as simple and straightforward as that."

Goram's words of doom may yet prove unfounded, but it is little wonder that his old manager Smith is getting out of this frightful business at the end of the season. The financial scenery around Govan is no country for older men, or wise ones.

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