The Rangers v Celtic: Match Preview.
One of the chief lessons from the first derby of the season was the gap in mental strength and thus the clear psychological edge for the Rangers. Too many in green and grey didn't display the belief or the required temperament to cope. The sheer number of debutants was highlighted beforehand and little we saw on the pitch dispelled the notion that experience in the fixture is vital.
Recent matches for the East End team, almost all at Celtic Park, have been a struggle: fans deciding to give it a miss, and many of the players enraging the supporters who have congregated. But the poor weather has allowed Celtic to race ahead in terms of games played and sneak to the top of the championship table as 2010 ended.
As such, there's a slightly different dimension to this game. Had all fixtures been fulfilled it isn't unreasonable to assume a gap of three points or more in favour of the Rangers and the real chance that a home derby win would have placed incredible pressure on Neil Lennon and his charges. But now a positive result for Celtic would get 2011 off to a fine start, with the real hope of further additions in the transfer window and fingers crossed for some departures across the city.
Games in hand are all well and good, but we needn't go back any more than three years to remind us that a fixture backlog and limited squad often leads toward a disappointing ending.
Those of us of a bluenose persuasion may find comfort in Walter Smith's record against our separated brethren. Since his return we have won nine of fifteen league games, losing four, drawing two. Of the seven games at Ibrox, the home team has won six, with Celtic scoring only twice. Walter knows how to prepare the side for a derby match. Celtic's record at Ibrox is not impressive.
All things being equal, I'd expect another home win. But the rumour mill so common before a derby has suggestions clear and faint to temper the exessive optimism: Naismith seems unlikely to recover from injury, and Davis may not be at 100%. Shorn of attacking options it could be a tight game, with much on the shoulders of young loan Ranger Vladimir Weiss. Added to that is the frankly appalling habit this season for sloppy goals conceded - almost as if there's an internal Auchenhowie bet in place rewarding the most amateur piece of defending. Celtic's lone goal at Parkhead wasn't an example of impressive defensive display, and yet it may struggle to find room in the bottom ten come the end of the season.
It used to be offered that form went out the window when it came to Glasgow derbies. I'm not sure you could make much of a statistical case for this in the near past - it often seems based on loan victories by a side long behind in the league race acting as a means of hope for the next campaign - but we can dismiss it as a concern this time around. Neither team has played much in the last month, and both have shown varying degrees of competence.
Celtic's entire season may not hinge on this game, but defeat will mean their championship hopes lie as much with fixture congestion as their own efforts. Avoiding defeat or, perish the thought, winning the game would place significant doubts in the heads of the fans of the Rangers, if not the staff at the Club.
All of this comes on the anniversary of the 1971 disaster. The atmosphere is bound to be influenced by the pre-match events. We can only hope they pass without controversy and that Rangers can move back to where they belong, putting a first foot toward the championship winning line and securing 54.