Glasgow’s Old Firm derbies will be a regular fixture on the calendar once again from next season, but before that Celtic and Rangers will face off on Sunday for a place in the Scottish Cup final at a meeting with Hibernian. The encounter will be just the second between the great rivals’ since 2012, when Rangers were liquidated and forced to start again from the bottom tier of Scottish football. And the semifinal at Hampden Park comes less than two weeks after Rangers completed the return through the pyramid by securing the Scottish Championship trophy.
Mark Warburton’s side will be back in the Scottish Premiership from next season to resume one of the fiercest rivalries anywhere in the world, and have already set the goal of competing with Celtic. In Rangers’ absence, Celtic have dominated, taking four titles in a row and are on course to make it five this season, currently leading the table by eight points with five games of the season remaining.
The only other occasion the two sides faced off since 2012 came in last season’s Scottish League Cup semifinal, when Celtic secured a comprehensive 2-0 victory. The pressure is on Celtic to do likewise on Sunday, with plenty suggesting that a defeat could spell the end for manager Ronny Deila, who, despite guiding the team to success domestically, has struggled in Europe. The Norwegian, though, has claimed that the onus is on Rangers to back up their lofty status, and their budget.
“Everybody wants to play us up as big favorites but the truth is they won their league and have the second highest budget in the country,” he said in his pre-match press conference. “So it’s not like we’re playing a small team, we’re playing the second biggest. You should expect them to be on a level with Aberdeen, Hearts and these clubs.
“They can be that good. This is going to be their test. It’s easy to say it looks like we’re going to play Stromsgodset—that’s not right. We’re playing a big club here. They have the second highest budget. Now it’s the time for them to show how good they are.”
While Celtic have a doubt over the fitness of defender Erik Sviatchenko, Rangers will be hampered by several significant absentees. Top scorer Martyn Waghorn returned to training this week after suffering a knee injury in February and has been itching for an immediate recall. However, his manager has insisted that he will not risk rushing him back for such an intense occasion. Warburton’s attacking options will also be restricted by an injury for Harry Forrester and wide duo Michael O’Halloran and Billy King both being cup-tied.
For Warburton, who took the reins last summer after leaving English championship side Brentford, it will be his first experience of an Old Firm derby. And, ignoring the comments from his Celtic counterpart, Warburton has put the weight of expectation on the Scottish champions.
“Any neutral would say Celtic have to be favorites—of course they are, and that’s not being rude to Rangers,” he said. “Rangers fans will understand that, but we have been in good form this season. Our quality has been evident, individually we have been strong and we deserve to be where we are in the league.
“Our focus is to go there and hopefully have a good, open game of football. That’s what we want and we hope it’s a good spectacle for the fans watching.
Prediction: Rangers’ absentees will be a major blow to their chances of causing an upset, and particularly to threatening a Celtic defense that has conceded just five goals in their last 11 matches. A repeat, in least in terms of the scoreline, of last year’s meeting could be on the cards.
Predicted score: Celtic 2-0 Rangers
Kickoff time: 7 a.m. EDT
TV channel: Sky Sports 2 (UK), no live TV coverage in the USA