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Oct 3, 2009

Stage set for McCourt

Big games often produce new heroes and matches don't come any bigger than Old Firm clashes. But is there anyone lurking in the shadows at Rangers or Celtic destined to make a real surprise impact in this weekend's Glasgow derby?

One such character could be Northern Irishman Paddy McCourt who is beginning to make his presence felt on the domestic stage for the Hoops. The former Derry City man has exploded on to the scene this season after making just five substitute appearances last term under former boss Gordon Strachan, the man who lured him to Scotland.

Tony Mowbray seems to have faith in the 25-year-old who has more than grabbed his chance with successive goals against Falkirk in the CIS Cup and St Mirren on league duty.

That form has even earned him a subsequent international recall for Northern Ireland's final World Cup qualifier. But McCourt was forced out of the disappointing Europa League draw with Rapid Vienna in the East End of Glasgow.

That frustrating result leaves the Hoops bottom of Group C following their earlier loss to Hapoel Tel-Aviv.

However, McCourt is expected to recover in time for Sunday's showdown and the 1-1 result with the Austrians will have left Mowbray with lots to ponder.

So, could the enigmatic wide player be ready for a recall for what would be the biggest match of his fledgling career in front of more than 50,000 fans?

The wing king certainly knows he has to fight for the right to win a place in Mowbray's side, particularly with wide boys Aiden McGeady and Shaun Maloney in fine domestic form.

The diminutive duo hugged both flanks against Rapid and although they made an impact against the Austrians the Celtic manager may still decide to shake things up for the trip across Glasgow to face the reigning SPL Champions.

Little-known McCourt refuses to take anything for granted and insists hard work is the only way he will continue to make more progress and fulfil his dreams.

"There's no way I'm near the finished article," said McCourt. "I'll still get fitter and I'll still get better but it's been nice to get a few starts and some goals. When I joined from Derry City I was nowhere near ready to play here and was lucky that my ability was getting me through games in the League of Ireland.

"The jump in terms of fitness was massive and it took my body a while to come to terms with it. Luckily this year I've been able to get a full pre-season which has allowed me to perform every day at training without any setbacks.

"Aiden and Shaun are the first choice wingers but it's a challenge to get in the side with those two fantastic players in front of me."

It will be interesting to see how Mowbray reacts to the Europa League Group C draw with the Austrians. Will he opt to alter his side for the Old Firm derby clash or decide to stick with the basis of the team that now sits top of the tree, four points ahead of Rangers?

It is not an easy choice, particularly with players like McCourt, Chris Killen, Barry Robson and Glenn Loovens waiting in the wings. Mowbray might feel Rangers won't know too much about McCourt given the fact he has almost flown under the radar since his £50,000 transfer and could yet be the manager's ace card.

The Bhoys boss would have been looking for a morale-boosting victory and an encouraging display against Rapid on which to build from ahead of the world famous encounter that lies ahead this weekend. Similarly Walter Smith has lots to consider in the wake of the heavy Champions League defeat at the hands of Sevilla.

A 4-1 reversal at home is hardly the ideal preparation for the eagerly-awaited first Old Firm showdown of the new Scottish Premier League season.

Smith was forced to slash his first team squad during the summer as he revamped his playing pool. As a result he has less room for manoeuvre in terms of player selection than his counterpart Mowbray.

Both bosses will attempt to second guess each other as they look to gain that little extra edge in the battle of the minds.

Rangers' biggest failing this season has been their inability to find the back of the net so Smith may well again look to tinker with his forward line to find the perfect attacking blend.

On the flip side of the coin, Mowbray's dilemma seems to centre on the make-up of his midfield quartet with McCourt a stronger contender for a place providing he proves his fitness.

Undoubtedly, given Smith's managerial experience he will know all about McCourt's ability. But the winger might well just be able to spring a little surprise in what could prove to be one of the biggest Old Firm stories ever.

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