By Ryan Fleming
It made me laugh. It really did.
About a month ago there claimed to be a three-team race for the SPL title. That dream or apparition was immediately squashed the next weekend when Neil Lennon’s Celtic quickly silenced Hearts, 4-0, and seemingly laughed at the prospect of another title challenger. It was the now injured James Forrest strike within three minutes, followed by a double by Anthony Stokes and another thank-you-very-much by Patrick McCourt.
Since then, the Hoops have been nearly invincible, playing to a 3-0-1 record, including a 2-2 tie to Rangers two weeks ago. This weekend the two teams meet again in what will be the season for either team.
With two games in hand, Walter Smith’s team trails their crosstown rivals by a mere five points. A win on Sunday would do a lot to solidify the teams spot back at the top of the league. Smith, and United States international Maurice Edu, have much going against them. Rangers hasn’t shown anything, especially against Celtic, that would even hint at the idea that it could take anything from Lennon’s side come Sunday. In the teams’ three previous meetings this season, the meetings are split 1-1-1, the tie being their most recent meeting in the Scottish Cup final. In the tie Celtic proved their resilience, battling back twice, once with a man down and won a moral victory over Rangers latest addition, El Hadji Diouf.
But moral victories aside, the only triumph either team will fully accept will be on the field at Celtic Park this weekend. Despite what happens when the two meet in the Scottish Cup next week, the league will be won this Sunday.
Both teams need a win. Celtic’s done its job, earning all six points since their last meeting. Rangers has matched them. Lennon, who has been criticized throughout the season to every extent, finally has his team playing to its potential. Recent recipient of the Manager of the Month Award, the Northern Irishman is milking the best out of defensive midfielder Baram Kayal, the league’s Player of the Month, transforming the Israeli international into a microcosm of himself — a rough, hard-nosed midfielder.
When Celtic and Rangers take the field this Saturday, it isn’t just about another rivalry game — it is always more. The winner will go on to win the league and in turn get an automatic invite to the Champions League. In a league certainly second-rate and until something is done about the money going around in the sport, becoming league champions is the main priority for both Rangers and Celtic. The money that the Champions League brings in is invaluable for two money-starved teams.
Lennon continues building his team while Smith has to work with what he has because of financial restraints. Both are successful in their own way. Only one team will come away with glaring smiles, and it will mean more than any game this season.
Ryan Fleming can be reached at email@example.com.