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Not just pride at stake in final Old Firm encounter

There's no such thing as a meaningless Old Firm game and there is a concrete ring of truth around that well-worn claim. The settling of local rivalries throughout the footballing world is enough to instil derbies with an intensity that often exists separately from the business of claiming silverware. The crucible of the main Glasgow version will always draw resonance simply from the unique partisanship it excites.

But since Celtic and Rangers clashes basically are the SPL title race, their four annual meetings also generally assume an important, although not always decisive, bearing on its outcome. In the previous two seasons the League has gone right to the last game so Tuesday night's derby, specifically moved back by the SPL to avoid even the remotest possibility of Rangers winning the league at Celtic Park, is something of a recent anomaly in its irrelevance as to where the SPL flag will be pitched.

No last-day helicopter will be required to whisk the league trophy back to Govan this year with Rangers having briskly concluded business at Easter Road with three games to spare. The final Old Firm game does, however, confront several of its participants with the opportunity to enhance personal claims, not least Celtic interim-manager Neil Lennon.

Victory would provide a measure of panacea for Celtic fans girding themselves for a barrage of gloating from a gleeful travelling Rangers support but for Lennon the game is a second and, possibly, defining test of his stewardship.

Six straight league wins have gone some way to eradicating the memories of the first. April's defeat to Ross County was a bad stain on Lennon's potential candidature but, that afternoon at Hampden apart, the ex-Celtic midfielder can justifiably point to a marked improvement from the team.

Celtic's securing of their most convincing home win of the season, a 4-0 victory over Motherwell on Saturday, was further evidence that, even in the shadow of that Scottish Cup defeat, Celtic are beginning to grow under Lennon.

If Celtic triumph on Tuesday the Parkhead board may be placed in a tricky situation. Would giving Lennon - a young, inexperienced manager with less than ten games under his belt - the manager's job on a full-time basis represent more or less of a risk than bringing in a more seasoned campaigner?

With attendances plummeting the need to secure a bigger name, Ronald Koeman has this week claimed there has been contact with Celtic - may take precedence over any decision regardless of Tuesday's result. If Celtic fall it is difficult to conceive of Lennon being offered the job.

With Lennon anticipating his first Old Firm encounter from the dugout, Smith could be preparing for his last. The Rangers manager's doom-laden prognosis of Rangers' immediate future following his side's title win did not suggest a leader keen to continue such a manful defiance of some heavily-weighted odds.

Rangers managerial team of Smith and Ally McCoist, operating out of contract since January, have epitomised the backs-against-the-wall mentality that has served their side so well this season. In a strange way, the financial lockdown placed on Smith this season has helped him. Forced to focus on the pared down squad he has been left with, Smith has honed them into an effective and solid unit.

Some deft husbandry saw the squad depleted further in January by the departures of high-earners Pedro Mendes and Jerome Rothen, but Smith still brought home the SPL bacon and, perhaps more importantly, the oxygen of Champions League cash (Rangers' automatic qualification was guaranteed after Bayern Munich's semi-final victory in Lyon).

But, with six players out of contract this summer, top talents such as Steven Davis, Madjid Bougherra and Danny Wilson linked with moves away and with no clear resolution of Rangers' off-field financial problems in sight, Smith may recognise that a repeat of this season's title triumph would be a bridge too far. Victory over Celtic would be a sweet swansong should he choose to ride off into the sunset. For Kris Boyd and Nacho Novo, two players whose deals run out in the summer but have yet to accept Rangers new contract offers, the game also offers perhaps one final chance to inflict misery upon their rivals. Novo has been a recurrent thorn in Celtic's side over the years but just one of Boyd's 100 Rangers SPL goals has been against Celtic. In a season when the ex-Kilmarnock striker has claimed a number of goalscoring records, breaking his Parkhead duck for Rangers would be a welcome finale should he depart for England.

Kyle Lafferty's late surge for the hearts of the Rangers faithful has been helped by several vital strikes in the title run-in, most eye-catchingly with the decisive goal to win the league at Easter Road. An extension of that rich vein of goalscoring form at Celtic Park would accelerate his path to redemption in the eyes of an often exasperated Rangers support.

By contrast, Robbie Keane has been an unqualified success. The loan signing from Spurs resisted the overtures of the English Premier League in January for the chance to play, and presumably score, in Old Firm games. A visiting defence missing Bougherra and Sasa Papac will be stiffly tested by the Irish captain in what is sure to be the final chance for him to claim a Rangers scalp.

Alongside Keane, striker Morten Rasmussen will be looking to stake an early claim to lead next season's Celtic attack and possibly to squeeze his way into the thoughts of Denmark manager Martin Olsen ahead of the World Cup.

Throw in a mini war of words between Novo, Andreas Hinkel and Diomansy Kamara to ensure a vigorous stirring of the pot and the final Old Firm match is ready to dish up for 60,000 expectant guests. They will whip up the latest bout of this timeless rivalry but with the SPL trophy on its way to Ibrox, the pursuit of personal ambitions must serve as the main distraction.


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