Six most important players in Sunday's Old Firm semi-final
Scott Brown (Celtic)
A storyline that was on everyone’s lips in the opening couple of months has been lost in a sea of treble talk and unbeaten run bids. Brown rejuvenation continues unabated as the Celtic skipper has just been incredible this year. It may even be his best campaign in a Celtic shirt as he’s routinely been one of the better players in a team that have laid waste to all in front of them.
At this exact same stage last season he gave a poor account of himself in the semi-final against Rangers, being easily outplayed by Andy Halliday. This time around he’s fully fit and in great form, and will be desperate to make up for what occurred 12 months prior.
For Rangers it could be a case of trying to rile the captain, who can let his temper get away from him. If they can get Brown to lose his focus then they may find more gaps opening up in the opposition half.
Moussa Dembele (Celtic)
This could easily have been Scott Sinclair, Tom Rogic or Stuart Armstrong. They are all great players capable of winning Sunday’s match by themselves. It just goes to show how tough a task Rangers have in front of them. When your opponents can afford to have Leigh Griffiths sitting on the bench, you know you’re in for a long 90 minutes.
In the end, Dembele gets included in this list because, to this point, if he scores against Rangers then Celtic win. Five goals in three Celtic victories, and you’d have to think that record will continue this weekend if he finds the back of the net again.
The highly-rated Frenchman saw his form cool a little before an injury limited his appearances over the last couple of months. Now that he’s rested and back to full fitness, expect to see him looking back to his best.
Kenny Miller (Rangers)
Despite the fact Miller has scored fewer goals than Martyn Waghorn this season, there’s no doubt as to who the club’s most potent match-winner is. That’s probably because, while Waghorn has filled his boots against the likes of Queen of the South, Stranraer and Hamilton Accies, Miller has come through in the big matches time and again.
In last year’s semi-final the veteran striker started on his own through the centre and was outstanding for the first 45 minutes, where he gave Rangers a first-half lead. On this occasion it’s unlikely he’ll be trusted to lead the line by himself, and will likely take a place either on the wings or as the No.10 in a 4-2-3-1. Regardless of where he’s used, he can be trusted to put in a hard shift, running himself daft to protect the defence while remaining his side’s biggest threat in attack. If anyone is going to pop up with an unlikely Rangers winner, Miller is the favourite to do so.
Jozo Simunovic (Celtic)
Celtic were really knocked off their stride in the last match between the sides. A big reason for this was Rangers’ pressing of the Rangers centre-backs. Any short ball from Craig Gordon or another member of the defence was immediately followed by a blue shirt closing the play down. And when they did get time to play, they found the visitors completely sagging off and covering the attackers, daring Dedryck Boyata and Erik Sviatchenko to do their worst.
Though Rodgers lacks an all-out defensive baller in the mould of Virgil van Dijk to call on, the unit will be improved in that aspect of their game by Simunovic coming in for either Boyata or Sviatchenko. The Croat has more composure on the ball, is capable of stepping up and initiating attacks and is accurate in his passing. It sounds like a strange choice to pick a defender and focus on his attacking qualities, but he’ll have the ball more than most on Sunday. He’d better make good use of it.
James Tavernier (Rangers)
It’ll be interesting to see where Pedro Caixinha chooses to play the roving right-back. Such is his defensive liability that, in past games against Celtic this season, both Graeme Murty and Mark Warburton utilised him in midfield. Having stabilished the defence since his arrival, with three successive clean sheets, Caixinha may feel confident enough in Tavernier’s abilities to keep him in the back four.
If he does play there his assignment could scarcely be any be tougher. He’ll have Scott Sinclair and Kieran Tierney coming at him all game, not to mention Stuart Armstrong who likes to drift out to the left on occasion. Anything less than a competent defensive display and the back four may crumble.
On the other hand, he played well in last year’s semi-final, and his attacking forays have the potential to hurt Celtic, as evidenced by his cross for Miller to score in the game between the sides at Hogmanay. Besides, there’s no better chance to prove the critics wrong by performing in a Hampden semi-final.
Danny Wilson (Rangers)
Clint Hill is still a doubt for this game and may not return in time to face. While Rangers have registered three clean sheets with youngster David Bates in the defence, the centre-back is still a little rabbit-in-the-headlights at times, particularly in possession. Aberdeen spooked him on more than one occasion and it’ll only get tougher against the champions. Among Wilson’s responsibilities as the leader of the young back four, with teenager Myles Beerman on his other side, will be to keep his inexperienced partners settled and calm throughout the game.
Even if Hill does make it back, Wilson will still have a hard job on his hands with Moussa Dembele out for revenge. The ex-Hearts skipper won the last round when Rangers took a point from their visit to Celtic Park, but Dembele will be out to repeat his Hampden heroics from the Betfred Cup semi-final.