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Warburton has firepower at Rangers to pose threat to his old friend and Celtic foe Rodgers

By Julian Taylor

Published 22/10/2016

Respect: Old Firm rivals Mark Warburton (left) and Brendan Rodgers (right)
Respect: Old Firm rivals Mark Warburton (left) and Brendan Rodgers (right)

If there is such a concept as 'Friends at War' in football, then perhaps it could be defined by Brendan Rodgers and Mark Warburton.

These two deep thinkers of the game saw something in each other when stationed at Watford in 2008, Rodgers as manager and Warburton running the Hornets' academy.

Yet, as the latter admitted yesterday, ahead of tomorrow's Old Firm Betfred Scottish League Cup semi-final at Hampden, any friendships are essentially frozen for the duration of combat in Glasgow.

Like Alex McLeish with Gordon Strachan and Walter Smith with Tommy Burns before them, the demands on their time, plus the obvious deep divisions between the respective clubs, means a dose of regrettable realism.

"Brendan and I don't speak unfortunately and I think that is just the nature of it," Warburton said.

"Everyone works seven days a week in football and you don't get time to really socialise. I will have a drink with him after the game - win, lose or draw we'll always have a drink."

It can't be too difficult to imagine how the Ibrox boss felt when he did meet Rodgers in the aftermath of last month's 5-1 SPFL embarrassment at Celtic Park. Can Warburton, an intensely driven figure, afford another sour post-match swill?

You imagine the Englishman has been characteristically meticulous in the run-up to this, arguably, season-defining clash. Rangers may be in relative recovery mode with a modest budget to engineer improvements, but Warburton must display an innate ability to learn from mistakes.

Certainly a couple of issues are now redundant in the crucial midfield area. The absence of playmaker Niko Kranjcar to a worrying knee injury is particularly disappointing considering the Croatian's improvement in form and fitness since pitching up in the close season.

Then, of course, we had the rubber-necking, running sore of the Joey Barton sideshow.

The Scouser and the light blue half of Glasgow could have been a wonderful combination, but the gamble failed spectacularly. Warburton has clearly made his point and banished Barton will be regarded in years to come as a mere footnote of quizzical intrigue in Rangers' history. Life goes on at Ibrox, and it is from midfield to front where this game can be won against the Scottish Champions. Kenny Miller may be in the twilight of his career but the veteran continues to defy the odds.

Borussia Monchengladbach's Andre Hahn caught a suspect Celtic rearguard cold on Wednesday night as the Bundesliga giants glided around Parkhead victoriously in the Champions League, and if the combined grit of midfielders Andy Halliday and Jason Holt - so vital in last season's Scottish Cup semi-final win over their fierce rivals - can supply Miller, then an upset is viable.

Warburton's preferred 4-3-3 approach has promise. Rangers must emphasise attack as questions remain of the central defence. Clint Hill, another veteran, is coming to terms with the feverish nature of Scottish football but he is no David Weir, far less Richard Gough, in old days when solidity was practically guaranteed.

Treble-chasing Rodgers has unquestionably made Parkhead a brighter place, while naturally piquing increased interest around his native Glens of Antrim.

Celtic have, in the former Liverpool manager, got what they have paid for. Well, kind of - if you prefer not to be too critical, given the struggles of this season's Champions League group stage participation.

With one point from three games and having been ruthlessly dismantled in Barcelona and bossed in Glasgow by Gladbach, you can see why Celtic will be relishing the more familiar task against a Rangers side finding their SPFL feet.

Rodgers has been especially strong in reshaping, recruitment and mentality. Celts now zip forward with confidence, especially with Kieran Tierney on the left, and Scott Sinclair plus Moussa Dembele have been pivotal to the kind of swish style Parkhead fans traditionally demand, running up goals across Scotland. The possibility of Leigh Griffiths returning to the starting line-up to partner Dembele as well suggests the most dynamic potential available for years.

Warburton admits he should have selected Halliday to start last time around. The 25-year-old is a salt-of-the-earth crusader, lifelong Rangers supporter, hewn from the streets around Ibrox. Halliday enjoys that enviable kinship with fans, a fact which remains important when it comes down to Old Firm responsibilities.

Two managers, two attack-minded old rivals - and the prospect of securing a final meeting against either Aberdeen or Morton next month.

For one-time City trader Warburton, Hampden tomorrow will require all of his exacting attention to detail.

Rodgers, surely, will understand.

Belfast Telegraph

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