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23 Dec 2011

Another crucial Old Firm clash looming

As the festive season is upon us, so comes the traditional Old Firm derby on December 28th. As always this fixture is hotly anticipated and passionately fought. Nearly always this match is seen as 'key' to either - or both - Rangers' and Celtic's race to the SPL trophy.

This time around is no different.

Both clubs have major stories surrounding them as we build up to the second derby of the season. Rangers, having built a 15 point gap over their Glasgow rivals, have hit turbulent times. Important players have seemingly lost form and their ability to win despite playing poorly has disappeared. That once massive lead has been reduced to just four points.

While some of this is down to Rangers' inability to play good football and win their matches, a lot of it is down to a fantastic revival from the Hoops. The Parkhead club has now won seven SPL matches on the trot and are undeniably the side with all the momentum going into the match. Manager Neil Lennon has found some consistency in his central defensive partnership, with Dan Majstorovic and Cha Du Ri becoming the favoured combination. Gary Hooper has continually scored goals at the other end of the field, while goalkeeper Frazer Forster has been on top form of late, most notably during the Hearts game where his penalty save in the dying moments preserved a Celtic win.

It's not all plain sailing for the men in green. Majstorovic has already been ruled out of the Old Firm match after a breaking a cheekbone during last week's clash with St Johnstone. With Emilio Izaquirre only set to return to the side for Celtic's game against Kilmarnock, a question mark can be placed over his match fitness.

Over at Ibrox, the drama surrounding Craig Whyte's financial situation had not been impacting on performance on the field. Perhaps now, with Stevie Naismith out for the season Rangers have looked devoid of creativity in attack, relying heavily on Nikica Jelavic, a player now the subject of intense media speculation as to where he may end up after January as the cash-strapped Gers look for some money.

Predicting the outcome of Old Firm games is never easy as they tend to take place in their own separate bubble from such trivialities as form and individual talent. It is a match where there are no underdogs, in fact, the team coming in off the back of a poor run has often been the one to come away the happier of the two sides.

Rangers have to be considered massive underdogs given their recent trouble at securing victory, not to mention Celtic's impressive run of results. However this match will really come down to a handful of key areas:
Emilio Izaquirre's impact: Although Izaquirre sustained a serious ankle injury, he did manage 90 minutes in a reserve match on Tuesday night and will be expected to get some game time against Kilmarnock on Saturday. If that goes well, expect the Honduran to feature in the Celtic lineup to face Rangers. His talent is unquestionable and on his day he is the top player in the league. Only Jelavic can really be considered on his level. A fully fit, in form Izaquirre could swing the odds even further in Rangers' favour as the Honduran has long tormented the league with his barnstorming runs from deep.

Nikica Jelavic vs Celtic's central defenders: Jelavic has been irrepressible in the SPL, scoring goals with ease against any team. It will be on his back to break through whatever defensive pairing Lennon puts out to provide the crucial goals to see Rangers triumphant. In recent weeks, defenses have held Jelavic's influence and when he has been kept off the ball for a long period of a match he seems to lose interest. This will be key to Celtic as Rangers tend to go as he does. However, giving Jelavic too much room is a genuine concern as not only is he a prolific scorer, he possesses great vision to play in team-mates rushing forward in support. His performance could well prove pivotal.

The midfield battle: Both halves of the Old Firm have a number of lineups they can explore and utilize in midfield. For Celtic, captain and talisman Scott Brown will be one of the first names on the team sheet and will be expected to be representing the club in it's most important fixture. His passion and commitment make him vital to Celtic's success, but in Maurice Edu he has an interesting challenge opposite him. Edu has made himself a regular in the Rangers starting XI of late, providing much needed defending and breaking forward to help create scoring chances. This pair could end up cancelling each other out. Rangers' Gregg Wylde will be the unknown quantity, the youngster has shone in some environments, but none quite matches the atmosphere and pressure of the Old Firm derby. If he can torment his opposite number, Rangers' can cause problems.

Match Prediction: Given the various positive and negative influences on both clubs, I could very easily play it safe and predict a draw. Celtic though have to be considered favourites, perhaps even strong favourites, to take all three points and all the momentum and optimism that will come with a 2-1 victory at Parkhead.
Celtic 2-1 Rangers