Separated by the length of a league and coming into the game on the back of a decisive defeat the last time the pair met, Rangers are still going into today’s face-off with Celtic in bullish mood.
Their performance levels have evolved significantly since they were easily bettered in the League Cup last February, according to striker Kenny Miller, who says he sees nothing in the Celtic team to be frightened of.
“I’ve watched quite a bit of Celtic recently since the draw was made, said the veteran striker. I flick between Scottish and English games anyway if there’s a game on because I watch football. They are a good team, they are probably going to go and win the league again which makes them the best team in the country so we’ll give them the respect they deserve but we definitely will not be frightened.
“There’s no doubt we’re going to be making this a closer contest. I keep hear people saying how big the gap is. In any one game that doesn’t show you how big that is – or if there is a gap. In any game any team can beat any team, particularly in cup competitions. So going back to the game last year there were a lot of things going on with the club that was out of the control of the players.
“We got beaten 2-0 and Celtic were the better team on the day. Two goals in it was probably a fair result on the day. I don’t really think we did ourselves justice. We maybe gave them a wee bit too much respect and it might have been an accumulation of a lot of the things going on at the club.
“That’s in the past. This is a new team, a new management team. Full of confidence and looking forward to the game. We’re playing some great stuff, scoring a lot of goals. We know we’ve got the game in us that we can hurt Celtic. It’s about putting the manager’s game plan into effect when we cross that line, performing as a team and individuals on the day. If we do that we know we’ve got more than enough that we can win the game.”
Some key individuals will be missing though, with Harry Forrester injured, Martyn Waghorn still not fit enough, and Michael O’Halloran and Billy King cup tied, placing an even bigger onus on the likes of Miller, who insists nothing can fully prepare debutants – of whom there will be a number today – for the hurly burly, blood and thunder, passion and desire of the world-renowned fixture.
“Your first experience of it, the build-up is unique as well. You’ve got that as well. You’ve two sets of fans who are so passionate about their clubs, the noise, the atmosphere they create is unique. There’s nothing that can really prepare you for that. You can speak to who you want and hear about how good or bad it is and what it’s like, but until you experience it yourself you cannot fully appreciate it. As a Scottish lad growing up you knew what the game was about. But again nothing can prepare you for crossing that white line and that first whistle is about to go. It’s a fantastic fixture. Great to be involved in. It doesn’t get much bigger than a Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden against your oldest rival.”
One of a very select group who have crossed the divide and turned out for both halves of the Old Firm, he knows the demands placed on both sets of players when they face up to their city foes.
‘To be honest, the nerves are always there. You are preparing for what’s coming. This team the way the manager and Davie [Weir] have went about their business from day one – and they deserve so much credit for it – we are going into the game knowing what we need to do.
That consistency of selection and adherence to a certain style of play has been described as a vulnerability that could be exploited by their rivals but also something of a security blanket for the Ibrox side as they seek to make a mockery of their underdog status. Miller shrugs. It is what it is, he says.
“There’s not any mystery in how it’s going to go. We know how it’s going to be. Frantic, tackles flying in and situations occurring on the day but it’s about how we deal with it on the day. If it’s a choice between making it a battle and making it a football game then we want to make it a football game.
“But every single team talk still gives mention of winning our battle. We need to be prepared to go out there and battle but also need to have the calmness about ourselves to go and play our game and don’t allow it to become solely a battle.
“Much will be read into the outcome. The talk is of teams wanting to lay down a marker, focusing on next season’s Premiership title race rather than sides desperate to advance to a Scottish Cup final. The players, though, are more more myopic.
“For me it’s purely about this one. If we get beat, it’s not going to say that we’re not ready to win the league next year. If we win, it’s not going to say we are going to win the league next year.
“It’s an opportunity for us against the best team in the country at the moment to go and show how far we’ve come and show we are capable of competing against the best in the country. That’s what the game is going to show.
“Despite the result we’re not going to not be ready or we’re not going to be ready to win the league next year. Anything can happen. Barcelona got beat last week. Does that mean that they’re not as good as the team that beat them? That’s not how football works. Any team can beat any team on any given day. We know we are ready for it. And we know we’ve got the game in us that we can hurt Celtic.
“There’s a real belief within these walls that we can go and get the right result. The fans, everyone involved in the club; there’s a real belief that we can achieve something special this year, which would be a great first year for the manager and Davie. They deserve great credit for that because it’s been an enjoyable place to be. The lads love the brand of football we’ve got, and that’s led to a real sense of optimism going into this game.”