Boyd the key as Old Firm clash again
The New Year is set to start with a bang north of the border when Old Firm rivals Celtic and Rangers clash at Parkhead on Sunday.
The latest encounter between the Glasgow duo is sure to be a fiercely contested affair. The hosts trail their old foes by seven points at the top of the table and although they have played a game less they will be keen to cut that gap.
But all the focus will be on a rampant Rangers side which has hit top form over the festive season after recovering from their disappointing Champions League exit. Walter Smith's men have bagged an astonishing 20 goals in their last four Scottish Premier League fixtures.
That stunning scoring spree has sent out a resounding message to their critics. Many pundits had earlier predicted Smith's troops would struggle to defend their SPL crown especially after the Celts spent big during the summer transfer window.
But it's the Light Blues who hold the upper hand in the title race and they'll be looking to find the net again against a suspect Celtic defence.
All eyes will be on Rangers record breaking striker Kris Boyd who has more plans to add to his impressive goal haul. The Ibrox striker has just overtaken Henrik Larsson's Scottish Premier League scoring record following his five goal blast against Dundee United.
Boyd, who has announced he's keen to play for Scotland again under new national boss Craig Levein, has taken his SPL tally to 160, two more than Larsson. However, Boyd's goal rush could simply stir up further interest in the former Kilmarnock man.
The prolific marksman is out of contract at the end of the season and he's already attracted interest from several clubs in the wake of Rangers' financial problems.
Former Rangers boss Alex McLeish, who is now in charge at Birmingham, is a keen admirer of Boyd who could well be in demand during the January transfer window. But Smith is keen to retain his star man and he was quick to praise his performance against United.
"I thought Kris played exceptionally well. He's always managed to get goals and his performance against Dundee United was exceptionally good with some great finishes," said Smith. "To break Henrik Larsson's record in the manner he did was fantastic. The manner in which he scored the goals sums him up.
"Few can score the goals he does and he has improved a lot this season. He has accepted he has to do a bit more this season and it's not affected his goals."
Despite all the transfer speculation Boyd will be fully focused on finding the net against Celtic to try to secure all three points and further extend the lead at the top. In fact, the match could hinge on how the Hoops defence manages to contain the threat of the on form hitman.
Rangers will be without Boyd's strike partner Kenny Miller following his midweek red card against United, with their appeal unsuccessful. No matter who plays up front for the Gers the pressure is still on Celtic manager Tony Mowbray and he would certainly welcome his first Old Firm victory as boss.
He watched his side slip to a 2-1 defeat at Ibrox back in October but reckons his team will have gained a lot from that match.
Mowbray is likely to pair Glenn Loovens and Stephen McManus together again at the heart of his back four and they'll need to put the shackles on free scoring Boyd.
They will face a tough task and will need to be on top form to stop the striker in his tracks. Mowbray will look to his strike duo of Scott McDonald and Georgios Samaras to provide his side with the firepower they need to claim all three points.
He's also hoping to start 2010 in style by securing a derby victory over Rangers, a result that could breathe new life into Celtic's season.
"The derbies are always exceptional occasions with great atmospheres. There is expectation and anticipation, but hopefully the team has a great confidence from the way we've been playing," said Mowbray.
"We've been creating a lot of chances in recent weeks and we can also take positives from the first derby. For long spells, we were the team driving forward and we'll take belief and confidence from that.
"I have confidence in this team. I don't look at this game and sit and think about what Rangers can do. We will set the team up as positively as we can and try to give Rangers as many problems as possible."
Whoever comes out on top could go a long way to deciding the final destination of the SPL crown this season.