Ibrox set for thrilling Old Firm finale

By Keir MurrayBBC Scotland
Gary Hooper of Celtic and Madjid Bougherra battle for possession
Gary Hooper of Celtic and Madjid Bougherra will battle it out on Sunday

Former Old Firm stars Craig Paterson and Willie McStay agree that the final match between Rangers and Celtic this season will be very tight.

The pair, now football pundits for BBC Scotland, also believe that a win for Celtic would put them on the home straight for the Scottish Premier League title.

They differ, though, in their predictions. Former Rangers captain Paterson thinks the home side will manage a 1-0 win at Ibrox, while ex-Celtic defender McStay favours a narrow win for his former club.

"It's a colossal fixture," said Paterson. "A win for either team would give them a terrific boost for the title. If Celtic win, it would give them a real cushion.

"Even a draw would be a good result for them, because they would only be a point behind and they would still have that game in hand at Inverness.

Craig Paterson slides in on Celtic's Tommy Burns in the 1984 Skol Cup final
Craig Paterson (left) played in central defence for Rangers

"It's very difficult to predict. You would be hard pushed to pick a favourite, whereas in previous Old Firm games this season you felt that one team had the edge.

"For example, Celtic were the favourites going in to the Co-operative Insurance Cup final in March, having beaten Rangers in the two previous Old Firm games, yet Rangers lifted the trophy.

"The other unusual thing is that playing at home does not appear to hold the advantage that you would expect.

"Celtic have already beaten Rangers 2-0 at Ibrox at New Year and then they had the best of the game in the 2-2 Cup draw at Ibrox even though they played for almost 40 minutes a man down.

"Similarly, Rangers won at Parkhead earlier in the campaign."

Paterson's difficulty in choosing a winner is matched by McStay, who played 90 games for Celtic in the 1980s.

"Both teams have plenty of confidence and are scoring - I think there will be goals in it," he said. "But I reckon Celtic will edge it thanks to their flair in the final third.

"If Celtic draw, it is not a disaster for them. If they win, it would give them the momentum that comes from winning matches and I would fancy them to use that to win at Inverness.

"A win would put Celtic two points ahead of Rangers with the Caley Thistle game in hand.

"It would allow Celtic a bit of leeway to drop points elsewhere and they may well need that breathing space when they visit Tynecastle, which is a very difficult place to go."

The way the post-match fixtures have fallen this year, Celtic have two home matches and three other away fixtures on top of the trip up the A9 to Inverness.

After the visit to Ibrox, Celtic host Dundee United then travel to Inverness, Rugby Park and Tynecastle before completing their campaign at home to Motherwell on 15 May.

The fillip of an Ibrox win for Celtic would, of course, be lost should Walter Smith secure victory in his final Old Firm game as manager.

"A Rangers win would change things," said McStay. "That would make Celtic's three remaining away games harder. The pressure would really be on then."

For McStay, who made his league debut against the club's old rivals and who scored with a long-range strike in a 3-0 win over Rangers in 1984, manager Neil Lennon has a few difficult decisions to make.

For example, should James Forrest, who played in midweek, keep his place in the team, or should he drop out in favour of Ki Sung-Yueng in midfield?

Up front, will Lennon opt for a partnership of Anthony Stokes and Gary Hooper, or will Georgios Samaras, Rangers' tormentor in the 2-0 January win, partner Hooper? Or should Samaras play wide on the left?

"Neil has a big squad, he has got options," said McStay. "It has to be Daniel Majstorovic and Charlie Mulgrew in the centre of defence.

"I think he'll leave Forrest out and probably go with a midfield of Brown, Ki, Beram Kayal and Kris Commons.

"With those four, Ki will stay behind the ball and allow Neil to play two up front in a 4-4-2."

McStay is a fan of striker Hooper and views him as a certain starter.

Willie McStay (l) competes with Rangers' John McLelland at Ibrox in 1984
Willie McStay (left) played 90 times for Celtic in the 1980s

"He is outstanding. He doesn't like his back to goal; he prefers to play on the shoulder of the defender," said the former Celtic reserve-team coach.

"To use his pace and that of Samaras, should he play, Celtic will want to bring Rangers out towards them, say 30 or 35 yards from goal, so that Rangers are not sitting too far back.

"Or, if Neil plays Samaras high on the left wing then Commons can move inside and narrow the midfield. That would allow more space down the flanks for Celtic - Emilio Izaguirre and Mark Wilson love to go round the outside. It's one of Celtic's strengths.

"Rangers will try to pin the full-backs in like they did in the Co-op Cup final."

Paterson is intrigued by how the match will pan out.

"The Celtic squad is undoubtedly stronger than Rangers'," he said. "If one player drops out, there is another quality player who can come in.

"However, Rangers have the players who, when they are up against it, have produced the goods for Smith in the games that matter so many times.

"They are nothing if not resilient."

Both McStay and Paterson singled out the contribution of Steven Naismith as key to Rangers' success, highlighting his energy and ability to play wide right, wide left, as a central striker or in central midfield.

"Naismith playing just behind Nikica Jelavic could be the way to go for Rangers," said Paterson.

"He's the one with the energy and the technical knowedge of playing there from his time at Kilmarnock and at Rangers.

"He is a very big player for Rangers, the one guy who could produce a bit of magic."

Rangers need the win more than Celtic, so how will they react if they are losing or level with 20 minutes to go?

"If they are not in control of the points, they will have to chase a winning goal and that will mean pushing men forward and wide whenever they get the chance," Paterson said. "That brings its own risk against a Celtic team who know how to score."

It promises to be a tense and thrilling affair on Easter Sunday.

The stakes are high and, with Rangers determined to hand Smith a league title as an Ibrox leaving gift and Celtic keen to get behind Lennon after his off-field horrors, each side will give it everything to gain the upper hand in the final few weeks of the 2010/11 campaign.