A PROMISE or a curse -- that is what both teams must contemplate as Rangers carry their seven-point advantage over Celtic into tomorrow's Old Firm derby at Parkhead.
Last year and the season before, the team that went into the new year with exactly that margin for error ended up expending it to lose the title on the final day of the campaign.
Rangers did it in 2008, Celtic in 2009, so no matter what transpires in the east end of Glasgow tomorrow, each camp will insist that no definitive judgments can be made about the likely course of the second half of the season. One can say much the same about this contest.
Rangers struck a rich vein of form in December, winning all six of their SPL fixtures to the tune of 26 goals for and a meagre four against. Celtic, meanwhile, have been less convincing. After their comfortable 3-0 home victory over Aberdeen at the start of the month, a familiar pattern emerged and not for the first time this season.
Tony Mowbray's players repeatedly dominated games and were demonstrably the better side, but jeopardised their superiority by lack of ruthlessness at both ends of the field, so that chances missed in front of one goal were often punished by opportunities exploited by opponents at the other.
The odd goal in five saw them through against Motherwell at Fir Park and it took an injury-time individual effort contrived by Niall McGinn to ensure safety against humble Hamilton Accies last week. Between times there was a 2-1 defeat by Hearts.
However, there are tangible reasons for Rangers to fret. Their impressive performances over the past month have been constructed on two crucial partnerships -- David Weir and Madjid Bougherra in central defence and Kris Boyd and Kenny Miller up front -- and both have been dismantled prior to this collision.
Bougherra has been summoned by Algeria to begin preparations for the African Cup of Nations and Miller is suspended for lashing out at Darren Dods of Dundee United.
Walter Smith can plug the gap at the back in straightforward fashion by calling for the 17-year-old Danny Wilson to step in as he has done seven times this term, but the Rangers manager cannot repair the front partnership so easily.
Boyd is not suited to the role of lone forward and although his predatory instincts have now seen him overtake Henrik Larsson and establish a new SPL scoring record, he needs a partner. Miller, with his tireless scurrying around the box, filled that requirement.
Smith could go with Nacho Novo on a roughly like-for-like, or he might opt for the rangy Kyle Lafferty to act as a battering ram against the creaky Celtic back line, but the Ibrox manager has a record of crafty ploys against the other half of the Old Firm and has the option of playing John Fleck off Boyd.
Tony Mowbray, meanwhile, has to decide whether to relegate his captain, Stephen McManus, to the bench again now that Gary Caldwell has served his suspension, and it would be a surprise if he did not.
He, too, has a question to answer in attack. Both of his first picks -- Georgios Samaras and Scott McDonald -- were substituted against Hamilton and Mowbray has already established that he can reshuffle his formation in this fixture. He could start with Marc-Antoine Fortune in place of one of the regular pair, or he may nominate a solo spearhead with a supporting attacker sitting off, as he did at Ibrox in October.
"Rangers are scoring a lot of goals just now and I have to study that," said Mowbray. "Are they taking a high percentage of their ratio of chances or are they creating bags and bags of chances and scoring just an average percentage?
"I break football down, I'm analytical about it. We understand they are a well-structured side defensively and they are scoring goals, so they will be confident. We are respectful of their form at the moment but I am sure they will be aware of the threat our team poses as well."
As for Smith, he has exhibited his habitual wariness of the short trip across Glasgow. "While I hope we can continue to score," he said, "I always know that Celtic Park is as difficult as place as we can go.
"For me, Celtic Park is one of the hardest grounds to go to and that includes the European venues we go to as well." (© Daily Telegraph, London)
Celtic v Rangers
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