Belfast Telegraph

Home Sport Football Scottish

Stephen Craigan: There's no looking past an Rangers v Celtic final in the Scottish League Cup

Streets ahead: Ryan Jack celebrates his goal against Ross County with Rangers manager Steven Gerrard last Wednesday
Streets ahead: Ryan Jack celebrates his goal against Ross County with Rangers manager Steven Gerrard last Wednesday
Neil Lennon should lead Celtic into another final
Stephen Craigan

By Stephen Craigan

A cup semi-final weekend is always special and there's no doubt this will be exactly that as Celtic face Hibernian and Rangers play managerless Hearts in the last-four of the Scottish League Cup at Hampden Park.

The League Cup is the first silverware of the domestic season and it can give the winners a real psychological boost for the rest of the campaign.

On paper it looks certain to be an Old Firm final as Hearts and Hibs have had disastrous starts to their league campaigns. However, both Edinburgh sides will look to taking points off their respective opponents in the league recently as a source of inspiration and hope.

Celtic are going for four League Cup successes in a row and as a club have won 14 matches in the tournament on the spin, although incredibly Neil Lennon has never lifted the trophy as a manager.

The trophy has eluded him and Hampden Park in the League Cup hasn't been a happy hunting ground for Lennon either. He has previously lost two finals and a semi-final all at the national stadium, so his past experiences should see his focus fully on progression to the decider and not on lifting the trophy in December.

Lennon won't want to be remembered as the man who was in charge of Celtic when the trophy-laden spell ended. That alone will be a source of inspiration to him and his players.

The Hoops are in a good place at the minute, free-flowing and scoring plenty of goals. However, their biggest enemy could be complacency and over-confidence.

Sign In

Hibs have been on a dreadful run of form with manager Paul Heckingbottom hanging on to his job by a thread.

He and his players will see this as a chance to hugely upset the odds but they will have to put in a performance that is out of character from their campaign to date. If I'm honest, I'm not sure they have it in them.

Rangers and Steven Gerrard have nothing but bad memories of the League Cup last season as they lost to Aberdeen in the semi-final by a single goal.

I've spoken continually about the necessity for Gerrard to break the dominance of their city rivals and he can only do that by progressing to finals and that will be his message to his players - learn from the disappointment of last season and embrace the high-pressure occasion that a semi-final brings.

Rangers certainly look a better side than last season and are definitely in a better place, but the outcome of tomorrow's game will be the best way to gauge that.

With the financial backing Gerrard has had, the least his board will expect is to be in finals competing for silverware and I get the feeling that has to start sooner rather than later.

Hearts have just sacked their manager Craig Levein as they look to inject some life into their players because their recent form has been abject to say the least. They currently sit bottom of the Scottish Premiership and with Levein at the helm the board obviously felt they had little or no hope of causing an upset.

Change can free players up so it will be interesting to see if that is the case, although I don't think it will be.

I'm predicting two comfortable victories for Celtic and Rangers and an Old Firm final on Sunday, December 8. They are both streets ahead of the rest of Scottish football at the minute with individual quality and strength in depth regarding their squads.

Football, though, as we know isn't as straightforward as that but if either side lose this weekend the heat will certainly rise considerably on Gerrard or Lennon.

All-Ireland League was certainly an intriguing concept worth exploring but final decision had to be in best interest of clubs

I think that the proposed new All-Ireland League sounds like an exciting prospect in theory.

It's different for one, potentially more finance would be available, full-time football could be on the agenda and there's the chance for our clubs to test themselves against the best on the island of Ireland.

What I have to point out is that not every idea is viable or acceptable to all - as the IFA have shown by announcing they are opposed to the plans. It is, however, good to be open-minded and receptive to change, although maintaining what is best for our clubs as a whole has to be at the forefront of any decision.

We will always be stronger as a unit and self-preservation has to be taken out of the equation for the greater good of Irish League football.

If the best thing is to remain with the current status quo then fine but discussion and ambition are helpful to bring about improvement for our game.

The debate around Rangers and Celtic moving to England raises its head every now and again but it never gets beyond the rumours stage.

Like the All-Ireland League, I'm sure it has its supporters but ultimately there's too many obstacles in the way.

Our game is in as good a place as it's been for a few years and we want it to get even better. Let's hope that it does.

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph