Five key battles in the Rangers v Celtic semi-final

Where will the match be won and lost this Sunday at Hampden? Picture: John Devlin
Where will the match be won and lost this Sunday at Hampden? Picture: John Devlin
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It appears that both managers will stick with the systems that have, on the whole, served them well. Brendan Rodgers will retain the 4-2-3-1 – which resembles more of a 3-5-2 in possession, with Kieran Tierney pushing forward and Scott Sinclair cutting in to join the striker – whereas Mark Warburton will go 4-3-3, with Andy Halliday marshalling at the base of a midfield triangle.

The exact personnel in the respective line-ups is still to be confirmed, though Celtic have a full squad to choose from and Rangers are missing the improving Niko Kranjcar and the car-crash Joey Barton.

Below we take a look at five of the potentially key battles on the day.

Scott Brown v Jason Holt

The reinvigorated Scott Brown will relish this match, much like he did the last. A lot was made of Brown’s poor form last season but his retiring from international football at the start of this campaign has seen him return to somewhere near his best, thus vindicating his decision.

In the build-up to the last match between the sides, the focus was, predictably, on the explosive potential of Brown clashing with Joey Barton. They got within 10 yards of each other maybe twice. The most notable encounter came during a drop ball. Barton tried too hard, pulling a leg back in preparation to get in there first. Brown stood there nonchalantly and flicked a toe out to poke the ball away before Barton had even begun to swing at it.

Barton’s much-publicised fall has allowed Halliday to become the main man in the Rangers midfield once more, though Jason Holt’s reemergence has been just as key. The little playmaker has had to bide his time this season but has justified his inclusion in the last two matches by seeking space in the final two thirds of the pitch and making intelligent use of the ball when he receives it.

Holt slipped in Martyn Waghorn to set up Halliday for the goal versus Partick Thistle at Ibrox and did similar for Lee Wallace’s assist last Friday versus Inverness.

Moussa Dembele v Rangers’ central defenders

When Leigh Griffiths dropped out with an injury, Moussa Dembele took the opportunity afforded to him by slamming in a hattrick the last time these sides met. He has since scored six goals in his last six matches and has even scored a couple of goals for France U21s.

It means that despite Griffiths doing no wrong, the 40-goal striker cannot get into the starting line-up, which means it will probably be Dembele terrorising the precarious Rangers backline once again on Sunday. Rangers have four centre-backs to choose from, although Danny Wilson’s fitness makes him a slight doubt and, frankly, there isn’t much faith to be had in any partnership from the four.

Rob Kiernan and Wilson showed their frailties last season, Clint Hill has had as many good performances as he’s had poor- he was recently out-paced by Kris Boyd, rememeber – and as for Phillippe Senderos, well…

To be fair, Rangers have not conceded a goal in this year’s Betfred Cup. That’s six matches in total, though only includes one Premiership side, Motherwell. Even then, the match had an aura of pre-season about it given it was played on July 16. Rangers have recorded three clean sheets in the league this season, all coming in their last four matches, though their defensive frailties were still evident in their win over Inverness last week.

READ MORE: Rangers v Celtic: Where to watch, kick-off time, likely line-ups

Kenny Miller v the Celtic central defenders

Martyn Waghorn was the undoubted star of the Rangers attack last season and was given further competition in the previous transfer window when Joe Garner arrived for a sizable sum from Preston North End. But it is Kenny Miller who has lead the line more effectively for Rangers this season, culminating in his superb volley last week.

Miller is stripping back the years, providing an example to his fellow professionals of what you can achieve by looking after yourself late into your career. He may only have three goals so far this season but Rangers can score from all over the pitch and his movement, constant running and quality on the ball is just as important to his side.

The trouble is that he will be up against a much more solid, though by no means impenetrable defence. Celtic have just five clean sheets in 19 matches in all competitions this season, which have come against Lincoln Red Imps, Alloa, Dundee and Motherwell twice.

Kolo Toure is not usually used twice in the same week, if previous evidence is anything to go by, but Jozo Simunovic is a dependable replacement alongside Erik Sviatchenko if required.

James Forrest v Lee Wallace

After a slow start to the season, Lee Wallace has hit some form and his surging runs down the left are key to the way Rangers attack right now - especially given Barrie McKay reluctance to go around the outside of a full-back. A case in point was Wallace’s cross for Miller’s volley last week.

And after a stop-start couple of seasons, James Forrest has finally improved the final ball at the end of the direct, pacey dribbling he has become renowned for. So much so that he is currently keeping the highly-rated Patrick Roberts out of the side. Forrest has five goals and five assists this season – already bettering his contribution in the entirety of the previous campaign.*link*

The question here is who will dominate? Will Forrest’s presence and pace after receiving the ball make Wallace think twice before he forays into the attacking half, or will it be Forrest who is being pushed back as the he drops in to prevent his full-back Mikael Lustig being doubled up on by Wallace and McKay?

How this, one of the more intriguing battles, plays out could have a bearing on which side progresses to this year’s League Cup final.

Mark Warburton v BT Sport

Undoubtedly the most anticipated clash of Sunday’s match will be how Warburton fares against the media. The former Brentford manager refused to speak to the broadcaster pre- or post-match during the live coverage of their clash versus Inverness. This led to speculation, most of which surrounded the scattergun criticisms of Chris Sutton. Warburton has since denied this is the case and said that he was merely too “busy” to speak to BT Sport.

It also followed a bizarre press conference from which a short video of Rangers gatekeeper Jim Traynor went viral and which comes against the backdrop of the club’s ongoing dispute with the BBC.

BT Sport have since asked for answers, due to the obligations clubs have to face the media, and it will be interesting to see if he has the three minutes it takes to stop and talk to the media one of the several times he passes them in the tunnel in the build-up to the game.

READ MORE: Five talking points ahead of Rangers v Celtic semi-final

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