Tomorrow sees the first cup final of the season as Celtic take on Rangers at Hampden. This cup is the Scottish Cup’s poorer sibling and might even be described so eloquently as the “diddy cup”, but neither team will feel that way now they have reached the final, especially with the game carrying such importance for both teams. Obviously neither team want to lose to their bitterest rivals, but over and above this, Walter Smith will take charge in his last final as Rangers boss and he will want lift the cup one last time, especially as he knows that the league could go either way and this might be his last chance to sample success. For Celtic, this is Neil Lennon’s first final as manager and victory in this will go some way to confirming that he is the man to bring success back to the club.
A cloud has hung over the build up to this match, as both Neil Lennon and, Rangers manager in the waiting, Ally McCoist, were both banned due to their behaviour in the last Old Firm match. Ally McCoist has lodged an appeal against his ban, so he is still eligible to carry out his usual dugout duties, which is important for Rangers as McCoist has an important say in cup games and could be described as manager for the day(although with this being Walter Smith’s last final, im sure he will be happy to take a back seat). Neil Lennon, however, is still banned for the final. The official definition of the ban is that he is banned from the technical area, which does mean he can communicate with his players prior to the game and at half time. He is also allowed to relay instructions to the bench via telephone, although one thing he won’t be allowed to do is lead out his team onto the Hampden turf, which is perhaps the most hurtful aspect of the ban. I have heard a rumour that Celtic’s lawyers have told him to defy the ban, but I suspect there is little basis to that.
Rangers go into the game with their usual threadbare squad. The existing injury list of Lee McCulloch, Kirk Broadfoot and Jamie Ness is joined by Kyle Bartley, whom, it seems, is likely to miss the rest of the season. Although Kyle Lafferty was stretched off on Thursday, I understand that he is fit to play tomorrow. Steven Naismith came on at half time during the 1-0 defeat to PSV, so I expect him to play the entire 90 minutes.
In goals, I am going for Neil Alexander to retain the number one spot at the expense of Allan McGregor.
In defence I can see a back four of Steven Whittaker, Madjid Bougherra, Davie Weir and Sasa Papac.
In midfield I think that Naismith will start on the right, with Steve Davis and Maurice Edu in the centre. The left midfield slot is up for grabs, but if Lafferty is fit, then i can see him getting the nod ahead of Vladimir Weiss, with the latter being saved for the final spell when legs are tired.
Nikica Jelavic will return, fresh after being cup tied in midweek, with El Hadji Diouf either playing alongside, or dropping slightly behind.
There will be no surprises in goal for Celtic as Fraser Forster is once again chosen ahead of Lukasz Zaluska.
In defence, Mark Wilson, who recently signed a contract extension, will start at the right, with Emilio Izaguirre in the opposite full back position. Charlie Mulgrew will continue in his new home at the left side of a central defence duo. Daniel Majstorovic remains injured, so the final spot in defence is up for grabs. Glenn Loovens took Majstorovic’s place in widweek and I take that as a sign that he will start, although there is a chance that Thomas Rogne plays.
Captain, Scott Brown, will play on the right of midfield, with Barem Kayal and Ki Sung-Yeung in the middle and Kris Commons on the left. I know that Joe Ledley scored twice in mid week, but I just can’t see how he can fit into the starting eleven. Ledley replaced Brown midweek, but if Brown is fit, he will definitely start.
Up front, Gary Hooper is a certainty to start and I think that Georgios Samaras will be the man to partner him. Lennon’s faith in Samaras was confirmed as he signed a contract extension during the week and his performances in previous Old Firm games suggests that he will start.
At this point I should really make a prediction on who will win, but I am going to sit on the fence on this one. On one hand, Celtic have shown in previous Old Firm games that they are the better team, but a cup final throws the form book out the window, as Birmingham will tell you.
I can’t wait for the first Scottish cup of the season and I hope that the game can be as exciting as the last few Old Firm encounters (although, maybe with less cards).