Bhoys happy to not face deadly duo
Kris Boyd's heart must have sank as referee Willie Collum signalled for a yellow ball to be introduced during the first-half of Wednesday's 7-1 demolition of Dundee United.
Boyd, already three goals to the good and level with Henrik Larsson in the all-time SPL goal-charts, risked seeing his hat-trick chalked off should Collum decide a snowy Ibrox was unfit for play. Boyd needn't have worried. Not even the icy chill of a Glasgow winter has managed to cool a red-hot Rangers this December.
The champions roll in to Celtic Park this Sunday on a glut of goals, with front duo Boyd and Kenny Miller the principal gorgers, during a festive feast that has seen Rangers shift firmly into the driving seat in the hunt for the SPL title. Victory on Sunday would accelerate them almost out of sight of their bitter rivals.
It has been a thorough makeover. November's defeat to a ten-man Aberdeen came hot on the heels of an equally spineless loss at home to Stuttgart in the Champions League. With the sores of the Unirea Urziceni mauling still fresh, the bleak issue of the club's financial future unresolved, and Madjid Bougherra's latest extended international break sparking a training ground bust-up between the Algerian and Kenny Miller, there was precious little to cheer Rangers fans going into December.
Six consecutive wins and an astonishing twenty-six goals since that trip to Pittodrie amounts to a resounding declaration of intent. Whirlwind assaults on Easter Road and Tannadice, along with Wednesday's 7-1 mauling, have left Hibs and Dundee United's much-vaunted challenges smouldering at the wayside. Boyd's surpassing of Larsson's record shows where the balance of power has shifted in the Glasgow duopoloy.
With 31 goals between them this season, Boyd and Miller are leading the Rangers charge. The convergence of their two different styles - Miller all busy industry, Boyd the more natural, collected predator - has proven that a 4-4-2 can yield handsome rewards for Walter Smith's side. It's a pairing that could be reborn for Scotland too now Boyd has ended his self-imposed exile.
The breaking-up of such a fruitful partnership following the unsuccessful appeal against Miller's red-card on Wednesday is one of several concerns for Smith going into the Old Firm match. Rangers have lost influential defender Madjid Bougherra to the African Nations Cup although his expected replacement, 18-year old Danny Wilson, has impressed during the Algerian's spells out injured or residing on the Ibrox naughty step this season. Sasa Papac is also a doubt at the back.
A reversion to a familiar one up front on Sunday would, barring a fall-out of George Burley proportions, see Smith hand that role to Boyd for his first start at Parkhead since the Rangers manager returned to Ibrox in January 2007 although more likely a partner will be sought for the hitman with Nacho Novo (should he recover from a stomach bug) or Kyle Lafferty the most obvious candidates.
Boyd has yet to score at Celtic Park but the manner in which Celtic's defence has been delivering gifts to SPL opposition this season will stoke his predatory instincts. Tony Mowbray, who this week declined the opportunity to bolster his defence with the services of Dmitry Verkhovstov, will still be hoping to plug some gaps during the January transfer window.
Those are most glaringly present in the soft centre of Celtic's defence in what has been an error-strewn season at Celtic's heart. Gary Caldwell, Glenn Loovens and Stephen McManus have each alternated on a seemingly weekly basis as the Celtic fans current object of frustration, with Loovens and McManus' first half display in the 3-3 draw at Vienna a particularly painful memory for them.
Caldwell returns from suspension following his red card - earned for a badly timed tackle after Loovens dithered - in the defeat against Hearts although whoever starts Celtic will require more solid foundations than the paper-thin excuses Loovens and McManus offered during Celtic's 2-1 defeat at Ibrox in October.
Defensive difficulties aside, Celtic have also been playing well of late with Aiden McGeady continuing his own personal torment of helpless SPL defences. McGeady's confidence in his own game provokes him to try the unexpected and the winger's box of tricks has been Celtic's most effective tool this season.
The possibility of Mowbray pairing McGeady's craft on one flank with the pace of Niall McGinn on the other has been raised by a series of eye-catching turns from the ex-Derry City man when called into the Celtic side. A superb performance in Vienna and a fine goal against Hamilton last weekend have ensured he will be uppermost in his manager's mind.
Whether Mowbray includes Marc Antione-Fortune in his starting eleven is less certain with the Celtic manager opting to leave his major summer signing on the bench for recent games. Fortune showed the impact he can make with his arrowed finish seconds after coming on against Motherwell but the more proven goal-scoring instincts of Giorgios Samaras and Scott McDonald are likely to be preferred. Mowbray will surely refrain from throwing new midfield recruit Ki Sung-Yong straight into the hotbed of a crucial Glasgow derby.
Home advantage in this most tribal of atmospheres does, of course, bestow benefits but a packed Celtic Park, aware that defeat would see their side slip ten points behind, will carry a huge weight of expectation and should the score remain tight an agitated home crowd would play into the visitors hands.
It's a game Celtic simply can't afford to lose. Tony Mowbray's record against the top five in Scotland so far (Celtic have won two and lost three out of six games) needs swift improvement. Beating a rampant Rangers in the first Old Firm derby of a new decade would be a huge boost to their title hopes.