CELTIC striker Anthony Stokes declared that an “epic” derby “different to any other game or any other Old Firm game” that has gone before lies in store after the Glasgow rivals were paired together in the semi-final of the League Cup last night.
Dundee United will meet Aberdeen in the other semi, with the ties to be played on the weekend of 31 January and 1 February next year.
Stokes admitted there were cheers in the Celtic dressing room as the players watched the draw live on BBC Scotland. It will be the first meeting of the sides since April 2012 – the Ibrox club’s subsequent liquidation that summer resulting in them starting out again in the fourth tier of Scottish football.
In a tie that pairs the Scottish champions with a Scottish Championship team, Celtic will be massive favourites to reach the League Cup final. Stokes, who came on as a substitute in the 3-0 derby win for Celtic two-and-a-half years ago, considers that obvious, while Celtic manager Ronny Deila told the BBC that there were “three good teams in the draw – we didn’t get the best of them”.
“I would imagine we are favourites, to be honest with you,” Stokes said. “There is no point beating around the bush on that one. It was the draw everyone wanted, being realistic. Fans, ourselves. It is going to be a tough game. I think everyone misses the rivalry. I have said it before, that I think when Rangers are back in the top flight it will bring more competition for all the clubs, not just ourselves. There has probably been a build-up over the last three years because the people have missed it. I would imagine on the day it will be something special. It is good for both sets of fans, not a home tie where either team will have an advantage. It will be down to the best team on the day.
“We will both have our sets of fans behind us and I am sure it will be a special occasion.”
Both current Rangers manager Ally McCoist and former boss Walter Smith were in agreement that getting to the Premiership is still the priority for the Ibrox club.
McCoist said: “I’m delighted with the draw and judging by the reaction from the boys in the dressing room they’re happier than me.
“It’s a great draw for us. Everyone has anticipated it and I don’t think there’s any doubt Celtic will start as favourites. Of course they will.
“It’s a smashing game for us though. We feel the boys have come a long way and we’re now in a position where we feel we can compete with teams on our day.
“We’re not going to get carried away but I think it says a lot about the last couple of years that we’re now looking forward to that type of game.
“It can’t be a distraction though and it absolutely won’t be. It’s a League Cup semi-final with Celtic but nothing more.
“Whether anybody likes it or not, it isn’t as high on the agenda as getting out of the division is for us.”
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Smith’s reaction was equally cool: “It’s as good a draw as any for Rangers going into the semi-final. The important thing for Rangers is to get back into the Premiership.”
Asked if it was the pairing he wanted, Deila replied: “Yes, I have to say that, of course. I’m really looking forward to the game, it’s going to be huge and, hopefully, we will win and make it even better. These games are why you train every day. That’s why you play football.”
Jackie McNamara, the Dundee United manager, welcomed the chance to take on Aberdeen, saying it rekindled memories of when both clubs excelled in the 1980s.
“I think it’s a good draw,” McNamara said. “The Old Firm, the New Firm – back to the old days. It’s a great one for everybody and I’m sure Aberdeen will be pleased with the draw as well. “
Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes said: “Any game at the semi-final stage of a tournament is going to be difficult and both teams will see it as a real opportunity to get to a final.”
William Hill made Celtic 1/5 to qualify for the final with Rangers 10/3. Celtic are 8/11 to lift the trophy with Aberdeen and Dundee United 4/1. Rangers are 6/1.
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