Defences hold the key to Old Firm Scottish Cup semi-final

No meeting of Celtic and Rangers is ever knowingly undersold in terms of intrigue and anticipation in the build-up.

Rangers manager Mark Warburton (left) and Celtic manager Ronny Deila with the Scottish Cup at Hampden. Picture: Steve Welsh/William Hill/PA Wire
Rangers manager Mark Warburton (left) and Celtic manager Ronny Deila with the Scottish Cup at Hampden. Picture: Steve Welsh/William Hill/PA Wire

Even last season’s League Cup semi-final between them, despite a patently obvious gulf in class which was underlined by Celtic’s facile 2-0 victory, held a degree of fascination as the first Old Firm showdown since Rangers’ financial collapse in 2012.

As Ronny Deila’s Scottish champions prepare to re-engage with an Ibrox outfit revitalised and significantly improved under Mark Warburton this season, the crucial sporting ingredient of uncertainty of outcome is back in the mix.

Sign up to our Football newsletter

Celtic again merit their status as firm favourites to win tomorrow’s Scottish Cup semi-final, albeit at much less restrictive odds than were on offer for last year’s one-sided affair at Hampden.

But Rangers will line up at the national stadium with a collective belief among both their players and supporters that they are capable of winning, in stark contrast to 14 months ago when their minds were focused on minimising the margin of defeat.

It has been billed as a match which carries far greater significance to Deila than Warburton, with many regarding failure to defeat Rangers as a potential tipping point for the Celtic manager’s job prospects beyond the end of this season.

The Norwegian remains typically phlegmatic on that front and, while he expects Rangers to represent a far stiffer test for his side this time, he is confident Celtic at their best will still prove too strong for the newly crowned Championship winners.

“It’s a different team from the Rangers we played last year, they play in a different way,” said Deila. “So that’s why it’s going to be a different game this time around.

“But, at the same time, it’s a good game for us. I think it’s going to be open and attacking, which is a good thing.

“I don’t think the build-up has been so much more intense, personally, than it was last time. But yeah, maybe Rangers have bigger expectations than they had last year. That’s because they’ve done better this season, obviously. That is something I understand.

“At the same time, it’s a semi-final, it’s one game. We are top of the league. We just have to play to our potential and then we have a very, very good chance to win.”

While Warburton did not exactly attempt to downplay his ambitions of adding the Scottish Cup to the Championship and Petrofac Training Cup silverware his team have already claimed this season, he insists the task of closing the distance between Celtic and Rangers in terms of strength and quality will not begin in earnest until next season.

“If you were a neutral you’d think Celtic must have a stronger squad,” said Warburton. “They are top of the Premiership, they’ve been in Europe for a number of years, and benefited accordingly, so they must have a stronger squad.

“That is not a derogatory statement by anyone, that is just a fact. They’ve got a squad packed with international players and I’ve said from the outset we are very respectful of that.

“We have played to a consistent level of performance all season, and we’ve got our rewards in terms of winning the league, and the Petrofac was a bonus of course. So we are in good shape. But the strongest squad undoubtedly is Celtic right now.

“Our job, our bigger picture job, is to make sure that on 2 August, when the Premiership season starts, we’ve closed the gap. That is the key. This game is great, and I’m not in any way reducing its significance, it’s a cup semi-final. But the bigger picture has to be us gearing up for the new season.

“We’re not going into this game with any negativity. We want to go and win the game – absolutely. That will never change. But all we are saying is, there is a bigger picture, there is a gap there. There has to be a gap – Rangers have been out of the picture for five years. Our job is to close that gap. We have to improve our environment, we have to recruit well, we have to improve the quality of what we do, and if we do that we’ll be okay.”

Conventional wisdom suggests that midfield is the key area in defining the outcome of an Old Firm clash and there is no doubt that Celtic captain Scott Brown’s experience and drive will be crucial for the favourites in that department, as will how newcomers to the fixture such as Andy Halliday and Jason Holt can handle the occasion.

But there is also a strong sense that the reliability of the respective defences could prove the deciding factor this time.

Deila reported that Danish centre-half Erik Sviatchenko has returned to training and should be available to line up in a back four which has not always been convincing this season.

Warburton has maintained faith in his combination of central defenders Rob Kiernan and Danny Wilson, flanked by full-back James Tavernier and Lee Wallace, all season but many observers believe it is a clearly vulnerable part of his team.

With Tavernier and Wallace encouraged to venture forward at every opportunity as part of Warburton’s expansive style of play, Kiernan and Wilson can often be left exposed.

But Deila, whose most recent trip to watch Rangers in the flesh saw them surrender a 2-0 lead to lose 3-2 at Falkirk, does not expect Warburton to try to adapt to a more cautious strategy tomorrow.

“There are a lot of managers like him, playing the same style for every game,” said Deila. “You can see that with Ajax or Barcelona. Of course you make adjustments into the style – but you don’t make it totally different. If you change everything for one game, the players don’t feel as if they know what you’re doing.”

If Celtic find their optimum form, they should prove too strong and experienced for Rangers. That said, unlike last year, it does not require such a vast leap of imagination to envisage the odds being overturned. The only real surprise this time would be if it is not far more keenly and genuinely contested.