Can Celtic seize their Old Firm opportunity at Rangers?

Can Celtic seize their Old Firm opportunity at Rangers?Entering stoppage time at Celtic Park on Boxing Day, the season's second Old Firm game had danger written all over it for Neil Lennon.

What a difference goals make. Two in the dying moments against St Johnstone on Sunday, added to Paddy McCourt's winner when Motherwell visited Parkhead on Wednesday, have suddenly sent Celtic to the summit of the SPL as they prepare to cross Glasgow.

That fact in itself comes with a health warning. Rangers hold two games in hand over their main rivals, who in turn are a point clear. Much discussed problems over potential fixture congestion for Rangers' thin squad render it a difficult business in working out exactly which side should be favourites for the title.

Calling Sunday's game is similarly tricky. Celtic's supporters are split over Scott Brown's influence, and also at odds with each other over whether or not he was worthy of two bookings in the Motherwell game. What cannot be argued is that the combative midfielder will sit out the trip to Ibrox as a result.

Lennon regards that as a significant blow, as well he should. The manager has bestowed considerable faith in his captain Brown and despite plenty of detractors, meaning he would be the first name on the team-sheet but for this needless suspension.

Brown's absence is merely exacerbated by the shortage of midfield options left at Lennon's disposal. The impressive Ki Sung-yueng is with the South Korea national squad, Joe Ledley was dropped last week on account of poor performances and Beram Kayal has only just recovered from a long-term injury. Efraín Juárez, who has mysteriously disappeared from view after a fine start to his Celtic career, should be back in contention.

Brown isn't known for producing stunning displays at Ibrox. Nonetheless, his bite would have been welcome for Lennon. It remains a myth to say Rangers' style is blunt and basic – their showing at Motherwell on Boxing Day again demonstrated that – but Walter Smith can count upon experienced midfield players who are hardly lacking in aggression.

Experience for Lennon has arrived in the form of Freddie Ljungberg. The Swede's free transfer has been met with widespread scepticism on the basis that his best days are behind him. The forward will have gathered from watching Motherwell's visit from the stands that it is a tough business being a creative player in Scottish football given its physical intensity and the well-drilled, defensive nature of many teams.

Of course, Ljungberg is nothing like the player of his prime at Arsenal. His injury troubles since departing West Ham are also pertinent. A decent first year in the MLS was offset by a poor second, prompting reasonable questions over how much hunger remains within Ljungberg's professional make-up.

Still, there is hardly risk attached to Celtic taking a short-term punt on a player who is more accustomed to success than anyone else within their ranks. Some of the criticism of Celtic's capture would have onlookers believe he is 53, not 33.

While the former Sweden international will step into a frenetic environment, on and off the field, he will not face the standard of opponent he had become accustomed to in England.

Lennon's failed attempts to sign Craig Bellamy, Sol Campbell et al demonstrated the manager's desire to land players of stature as well as ability. A lack of alternatives may catapult Ljungberg straight into the Old Firm fray.

Rangers' mental approach hasn't been in doubt for some time. Their dismissal of Celtic in the east end during October was overshadowed by a refereeing controversy, but it was comprehensive. Personnel issues will worry Smith, though, if, as expected, Steven Naismith fails to recover from a hamstring injury. The former Kilmarnock man had been enjoying his best spell in a Rangers shirt before the injury, and would be an obvious candidate to trouble Celtic's shaky full-backs.

Rangers' other main asset, particularly against Celtic, is free of injury. Kenny Miller has made a habit of scoring in derbies since returning for a second spell in blue and white – with his time at Ibrox apparently running down, the Scotland forward has extra motivation to profit.

More incentive on this occasion, though, would seem to sit with Lennon and Celtic. A victory would put meaningful pressure on Rangers to win those games in hand – one of them against high-flying Hearts – and the young manager has his own key question to answer.

Celtic have failed acid tests against Ross County, Rangers, Sporting Braga, Utrecht and Hearts since Lennon entered office. Until they win a fixture of substance – and there is no doubt Sunday represents just that – then the manager cannot reasonably retort to claims about an inability to succeed in key games. The scene has been set.

Powered by article was written by Ewan Murray, for on Friday 31st December 2010 10.30 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010

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