Celtic travel to Ibrox to face Rangers in the first Old Firm fixture of the season. As is customary in the buildup to these occasions, the red-tops are busy stirring up as much off-field drama as possible (with this despicable incitement from the Daily Record), but here we can strictly focus on what lies ahead on the pitch.
If anything on the SPL calendar approaches the level of pressure and difficulty as the
tougher European ties, it’s the away trip to Ibrox; and therefore Neil Lennon will be tempted to adopt the more conservative ‘Plan B’, which is the in vogue (at least on the continent) 4-2-3-1.
The main argument against, as discussed in the Atletico Madrid report is that the system doesn’t really suit Lennon’s approximate first 11 to 15 players. The effectiveness of Ki Sung-Yeung, Gary Hooper and Georgios Samaras is diminished as per their starting positions on Thursday, and so if the formation isn’t going to change, the personnel should.
On this front, the return of Badr El Kaddouri (cup-tied midweek) poses a mini-dilemma – keep the same back four that faced Atletico Madrid, or more likely pull someone from the back-line, with the most likely contenders Charlie Mulgrew or Glenn Loovens. Mulgrew started at left-back on Thursday, and if the more dynamic El Kaddouri does come in, Mulgrew will either be shifted to centre-back, left-midfield, or out of the starting eleven entirely.
His removal would likely be fairly unpopular, as Loovens is seen to be inferior in most ways (at least by fans). But Lennon will be swayed by the fact that Loovens is a bona fide ‘natural’ centre-back, rather than a utility player who can do a job. Resting on the minds of the support, will be Loovens’ dreadful performance in the corresponding fixture last season – and while Kenny Miller may be gone, Nikica Jelavic will provide a similar level of threat.
The return of Scott Brown further complicates the midfield question, being club Captain it’s hard to envisage Lennon leaving him out if fully fit (which he reportedly is). This could see a return to the supremely narrow four man midfield that accommodates all of Joe Ledley, Beram Kayal, Ki and Brown. This would also open the door to Samaras moving into his more familiar position up front.
This could perhaps be unfair on James Forrest, who had such a good game against Motherwell, albeit a quiet one against Atletico. Anthony Stokes (often the first to be dropped for Old Firms) is available again but perhaps unlikely to feature so soon back from injury.
Ally McCoist has a fairly settled side, but with the return of Nikica Jelavic from injury, one of Greg Wylde, or more likely Juan Ortiz will have to make way. Assuming McCoist sticks with the 4-5-1 / 4-4-1-1 used most often this season, Kyle Lafferty is put into a similar situation as Georgios Samaras – namely, his preferred position is as striker, but is happy to provide a decent level of input from the flanks.
A worry for Rangers will be the two centre-backs who are both likely to be making their Old Firm debut. Past seasons have seen a consistent, experienced pairing, but the two new signings will be put to the test on Sunday. David Weir and Kyle Bartley are out injured, although with Sasa Papac passed fit, there’s a minute chance that Kirk Broadfoot will be moved inwards with Papac assuming his regular left-back slot.
While it’s fairly unlikely that Rangers won’t field the familiar 4-5-1/4-4-1-1, there is another option designed to get around a regular problem.
Their key player Nikica Jelavic has been left stranded in previous fixtures, when it has been Steven Naismith’s job to get forward and support. Considering it is a home game, it might be expected that McCoist throw caution into the window and start aggressively – especially considering Celtic’s flakey and subdued early game form.
It would also provide double the aerial threat up front, and it’s in the air that Rangers will feel they have the advantage with a number of strong headers of the ball (Papac, Broadfoot, Bocanegra, Goian, Edu, Lafferty and Jelavic) which is a reasonable advantage over Celtic’s comparatively smaller team. McCoist will have perhaps viewed Thursday with interest.
Rangers team selection shouldn’t spring any surprises considering who’s available, the primary question is the positioning of the front four. The safest bet will surely be a 4-4-1-1 with Wylde on the left, Naismith in the middle supporting Jelavic and Lafferty on the right – and watch out for a potential key battle between Lafferty and El Kaddouri (if he does play) – the former is one of Rangers poorer players at tracking back, but at the same time has a height advantage and may be used in that particular matchup as a long-ball option.
That is an argument for playing Charlie Mulgrew at left-back and keeping the same back four as from Thursday. There is a level of rapport and awareness generated that comes from playing together consistently, and with these stakes El Kaddouri may miss out.
That leaves the question of who (or if someone) will make way for Scott Brown? The answer will determine the choice of formation.
The dangers for either side won’t have changed from last season. Celtic need to watch out for Jelavic’s clever hold-up play and Naismith’s piercing runs in behind. Wylde will be considered the most dangerous supplier, although David could play in an even deeper role to make us of his better range of passing than more limited “destructive” type Edu.
Celtic could end up with more possession due to the nature of (possibly) playing with four central midfielders, but there’s the danger that the lines between attack and midfield are separated. Samaras may bridge that gap to some extent if used as a striker-cum-left-winger, but the real priority is converting that possession into quality passes to Gary Hooper, the most likely goalscorer.