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Scottish Premiere League - Final Day Title Decider
The vast majority of European leagues are finished and most of the top players are looking forward to Euro 2008 but there is one league where the title is still up for grabs.
Scotland may not be among the best footballing nations in the world but it does play host to one of the fiercest rivalries. Celtic and Rangers are known the world over for the battling nature of both teams and whilst the origins of their rivalry aren't the most pleasurable, there is no doubt it is a compelling match-up.
Rangers won their second last match of the season, away to St Mirren by 3-0 to draw level on points with Celtic going into the final game of the season. Both clubs have a tricky away game to play and although Celtic hold the upper hand going into the game, this is no indication of where the title may end up.
Rangers fans will moan about a lack of support from the SPL with regards to the fixture congestion brought about by their Uefa Cup run but a level headed fan would surely admit that the SPL's assistance has benefited the Ibrox club. Aside from allowing the club to postpone a game before a European match in December and then allowing Rangers to not reschedule fixtures in the same month, Monday's game against St Mirren was positioned to support the club.
The SPL implements a split in their league with the top 6 and bottom 6 breaking off and playing each other in the final round of matches. St. Mirren are in the bottom half of the table but special dispensation was given to allow them to play Rangers after the split.
This agreement was not afforded to Celtic in 2003 when they too reached the Uefa Cup final but had to play their outstanding matches before the split. Saturday's draw with Motherwell changed the attitude of Ranger's season. Until then, the team was happy to grind out results and the 4-5-1 formation would have been maintained if victory was assured at Fir Park
Saturday Slip-Up Changes Rangers Formation
However, the 1-1 draw against Motherwell meant that goal difference was likely to be a factor and Rangers went into top gear against St. Mirren. If Rangers had played St. Mirren before the split, this match would likely have been a dour affair with Rangers being happy to grind out a 1 or 2 goal lead and then shutting up shop. The SPL's gerrymandering of fixtures then presented Rangers with a glorious opportunity to rain in goals against a team who should have been on their holidays.
A goal in the opening three minutes appeared to open the floodgates and Celtic fans would have been genuinely concerned that their goal difference advantage would have been wiped out on the night. As it was, Rangers only added another two goals with Nacho Novo being the main culprit with some glaring misses. So, as the final games are set to kick off, both teams are tied on 86 points with Celtic 4 goals better off.
The Two Jimmies Face Accusations of Bias
If Celtic can win at Tannadice versus Dundee United, it would take an epic Rangers result away to Aberdeen to wrest the title from the East end of Glasgow.
Rangers fans will take some consolation from the fact that Aberdeen are managed by two big Rangers fans in Jimmy Calderwood and Jimmy Nicholl. The Scottish media may love "the two Jimmies" but the Celtic fans have no love for the pair and have a far funnier but possibly more offensive nick-name for the duo. Back in 2003, Celtic and Rangers were locked in a similar battle for the title with Rangers coming out on top thanks to a 6-1 victory over Dunfermline. The management team of Dunfermline that day was, you guessed it, "the two Jimmies."
It was a very good Rangers side that year and they would have been capable of hammering Dunfermline that day but when you have the management team making pointed remarks about the destination of the title in days leading up to the match, it can be no wonder that the integrity of the game is sometimes called into question. Thursday night will be the test of whether "the two Jimmies" are able to put their own fans considerations ahead of the club that they love so dear.
A Tribute to Tommy Burns
Returning attention to Celtic, it has been an emotional few weeks for the club. A month ago the title race was dead and buried when the home side lost 1-0 at home to Motherwell but two wins over Rangers has reignited the title charge and the team has been effective ever since.
Football is not the most important thing in the world though and many at the club are still feeling the pain of Tommy Burns' passing away last week. Burns was a Celtic midfielder in the 70s and 80s who played with a passion that came with being a true fan of the club. Returning to the club as manager in the 1990s, Burns won the Scottish Cup to give the fans their first silverware in 6 years and presided over some of the best football seen in generations at Celtic Park.
After he was replaced as boss, Burns managed in England before returning to Celtic as 1st team coach, a role he maintained until his sad and untimely passing. At only 51, Burns was very young to die and there will be many who would consider a Celtic title triumph to be a fitting tribute to Tommy Burns.
Back in 1981, Celtic clinched the league away to Dundee United with the winning goal being scored by Burns. The green and white hooped legions who travel to Dundee on Thursday night will no doubt be praying that this is an omen and the team can clinch their third title in a row.
Only A Fool Will Try to Predict This One
This will be the third time in six years that the SPL title race has came down to the last day and Rangers have emerged triumphant in both of them. In 2003 they led on the final day and in 2003 they came from second place to clinch the league in a heart stopping or heart breaking final few minutes, depending on where your loyalties lie.
No matter what happens in 2008, some form of three in a row will be done. Rangers will either clinch their third last day title of this decade or Celtic will be champions for the third season in a row under Gordon Strachan.
With so much at stake and so many intriguing sub-plots and twists, who knows what is going to happen.
The late great Jock Stein once remarked that "only a fool would predict the outcome of a Celtic and Rangers match" and the same principle applies to a Celtic and Rangers final day title showdown.
By Andrew Reilly
for The Silver Circle at www.footballtip.co.uk
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