With the first match between Celtic and Rangers this season just a few days away, Craig Cairns predicts some of the more intriguing individual battles.
Joey Barton v Scott Brown
The off the pitch war-of-words will finally be settled on the field when the tenacious Scott Brown matches up against the abrasive Joey Barton in Saturday’s lunchtime kick-off. Barton has claimed that Brown is “nowhere near his level” and has trolled the Celtic captain by using social media to post pictures of him in a Rangers strip. Brown responded to the comments though has the veneer of a man who is waiting to do his talking on the pitch.
Barton, who claimed he is here to be the best player in the country, has so far failed to live up to his own high-billing while Brown has regained some of his verve since Brendan Rodgers took over as manager. Brown will also be fresh after retiring from the international set-up to concentrate on club football, thus avoiding a round trip to Malta last weekend.
The midfield area will be key in Saturday’s match, with both sides likely to line up with three central midfielders. Though all eyes will be on the two number 8s in particular – on who wins the football battle and whether or not tensions between the pair erupt on the day.
Kieran Tierney v James Tavernier
Another key feature of this match will be the full-backs. All four – especially if Cristian Gamboa starts ahead of Mikael Lustig – attack aggressively, sometimes to the detriment of their defensive shape after conceding possession. The statistics bear this out, with Celtic recording just two clean sheets in 10 matches, while Rangers have yet to record a shutout in four league outings so far.
Though James Tavernier hasn’t quite captured his outstanding form from last season, he scored his first goal in their most recent match against Kilmarnock and found himself in some promising positions on other occasions. Kieran Tierney, who burst into the Celtic side midway through last season, has quietly continued with impressive displays and is also no stranger to attacking the space ahead of him. Whoever has most joy in pinning the other back will provide a great advantage to their team.
As well as having each other to contend with, the pair will have dangerous wingers to keep an eye on. Tavernier will not want to allow too much space to Scott Sinclair, while Harry Forrester will be a tricky opponent for Tierney to deal with.
Leigh Griffiths v Philippe Senderos
If the Swiss centre-back is thrown in for his debut, he will be lining up against the toughest opponent he is likely to face all season. Leigh Griffiths is in blistering form, scoring seven goals in nine appearances so far after his total of 40 last season.
Philippe Senderos, on the other hand, made just 14 appearances for Grasshoppers last season and just 10 for Aston Villa the season before that, and was never the quickest player even in his prime. Griffiths, though now more adept at dropping deep to bring others into play, loves to position himself on the shoulder of the last defender and make runs in behind. If Kris Boyd can outpace the Rangers defence, as he did for Kilmarnock’s goal two weeks ago, then Griffiths could have a field day on Saturday.
One other interesting aspect could be whether or not Moussa Dembele partners Griffiths in attack. Rodgers has, so far, preferred a lone striker but may be tempted to test the defensive frailties of Rangers by placing two strikers against their often exposed centre-back pairing.
Barrie McKay v Mikael Lustig/Cristian Gamboa
When these sides met in last season’s Scottish Cup semi-final, Barrie McKay pinged in one of the goals of last season. Despite being another Rangers player who hasn’t quite captured last season’s form, McKay will be key for Rangers when drifting in off the left wing, where he has started most matches this season, and linking with the advancing Lee Wallace.
Gamboa signed for Celtic towards the end of the transfer window and it is unclear whether or not he will be given a start ahead of Lustig, now in his sixth full season at Celtic Park.
It will be interesting to see, if Gamboa starts, how well McKay will be able to take advantage of any space the Costa Rican leaves behind him, given that he likes to get forward and join attacks. If up against Lustig however, McKay will have the beating of the Swedish full-back in terms of pace, though Lustig is an experienced campaigner who is positionally disciplined enough to cope on his day. No matter who he lines up against, McKay will be vital to any success Rangers have on Saturday.