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Stephen Craigan: Stephen Davis and Scott Brown will play key roles in deciding League Cup final between Rangers and Celtic

Steven Davis and Scott Brown could have decisive says in tomorrow's League Cup final
Steven Davis and Scott Brown could have decisive says in tomorrow's League Cup final
Austin MacPhee
Stephen Craigan

By Stephen Craigan

So, it's almost here. The much-anticipated Scottish League Cup final between Celtic and Rangers will light up Hampden Park tomorrow afternoon as both sides chase the first silverware of the season.

Domestically, both sides have been in impressive form. Celtic made it eight wins out of their last eight on Wednesday night against Hamilton, and although Rangers threw away a two-goal lead at Aberdeen to draw 2-2, they sit just behind them in the Scottish Premiership table.

In Europe, both of them have also excelled, with Celtic already qualifying for the last-32 of the Europa League and Rangers needing just a point at home to Young Boys to follow suit.

The Celtic side certainly have more experience of winning trophies at the national stadium and that will fill them and their supporters with optimism.

They have a hat-trick of League Cup wins behind them at Hampden Park but the Rangers players and staff will see this as a huge opportunity to kick-start a new era of success.

The teams are as evenly matched as I can remember and it will be intriguing to see how it's played out.

As always when these two meet, there's lots of questions that only the players can answer.

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Who can stay calm in the heat of battle? Who can handle the ball when the pressure is on? And who can get the better of their direct opponent in their head-to-head showdown?

From Celtic's perspective, they have got the ideal leader in captain Scott Brown. Love him or loathe him, his influence on the Hoops team has been evident for many a year and doesn't seem to be waning.

At 34, age doesn't seem to be a barrier and there are no signs of it slowing him down. He certainly still has the hunger and drive for the big occasion.

There's no doubt the appointment of Brendan Rodgers a few years ago gave Brown a new lease of life and that form has continued under Neil Lennon.

With 19 major honours under his belt to date, he'll be prowling round the Hampden Park pitch searching for No.20.

On the other side, Rangers and Steven Gerrard will look to their most experienced player, Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis, to carry the fight to Celtic.

Davis has a similar influence on the Rangers team as his direct opponent Brown does at Celtic. He doesn't, however, attract the same attention from opposing fans or players, but don't let that baby face take away from how competitive Davis is on the pitch.

You don't play as long as Davis has without having an inner drive and determination. He may be small in stature, but don't expect him to shirk any challenges, and his presence will be invaluable for the less experienced players around him.

Both sides have had a clinical edge in front of goal thus far this season so it will be interesting to see how they cope defensively with the threat posed.

Celtic have relied mainly on Odsonne Edouard, Ryan Christie, James Forrest and Mohamed Elyounoussi for their goals and I would imagine if all are fit then they will lead the line for Lennon's side. At times they look like they have a telepathic understanding such is their rotation and inter-changing of movement.

Up against them, the mobility of the two Rangers centre-halves Conor Goldson and Filip Helander worry me slightly and they'll be seriously tested. Keeping that quartet under control will be the key for Rangers if they are to triumph.

For the Gers, Alfredo Morelos has carried the baton with regards to goalscoring all season and that will likely continue. Remarkably, he was left out of the only other meeting this campaign in September when Celtic won 2-0.

He's in the best form of his life, and with Ryan Kent getting ever closer to top form also, these two in particular will be the main threats to stopping Celtic making it 10 domestic trophies on the spin.

Christopher Jullien and Kristoffer Ajer have built up a solid partnership and I've no doubt they'll be relishing the physical battle with Morelos, who incidentally has never scored in an Old Firm derby.

So, what will the winners achieve psychologically? They will certainly have a feel-good factor, they will have got one over on their biggest rivals and the bragging rights for supporters are helpful. Winning makes players hungry for more and that's something the victorious team will use to take forward.

Lennon has never won the Scottish League Cup in his seven attempts and Gerrard has had one unsuccessful go at it.

So tomorrow afternoon will see the trophy being lifted by one of them for the first time. The big question is, who will it be?

Hearts must get new man in quickly or face battle to avoid drop

Austin MacPhee

It's just over five weeks since Hearts sacked their manager Craig Levein and still they haven't appointed a new full-time successor.

Austin MacPhee, who is part of Michael O'Neill's Northern Ireland backroom staff, has been in interim charge of the team since Levein left and it was initially thought that he might be in the running to step up into the full-time post.

However, having presided over just one win in his five matches, it seems that MacPhee has been ruled out, with their attention switching to former Barnsley boss Daniel Stendel.

Contractual obligations with Barnsley have held up the process of appointing him but, with the predicament Hearts are in, they could really do with their new man at the helm sooner rather than later.

Hearts started the season with lofty ambitions of qualifying for European football, but after 15 games they could not have had a much worse start and are just a point off the bottom of the table.

Their season is on the brink of being a write-off unless the matter can be resolved quickly.

Hearts are not a club who should be in the bottom half, but the threat of a relegation battle is looming unless they can arrest their current form of just two league wins all season.

Remember that old saying that you're never too good to go down.

Belfast Telegraph


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