Ten Days In May
There are few things in life more odious than the sectarianism that still somehow manages to attach itself to the rivalry between Rangers and Celtic. Even though the two sides play each other a minimum of four times each season, every match between them seems is like a spit-flecked stand off between two angry men, both of whom hold the other a being responsible for all the ills of the world, singularly unable to come to terms with the simple reality that both have more in common with each other than either would like to admit. The very name “Old Firm” derives from the fact that both clubs were, in their early days, quite happy to exploit the commercial benefits of this sectarianism. Such matters make it very difficult to be objective about Rangers or Celtic from a footballing point of view, but even their harshest rivals have to concede that this year’s Rangers team has a chance of doing something remarkable – winning four trophies in one season. Here’s the story so far. They have already won the Scottish League Cup, having beaten Dundee United in penalties at Hampden Park earlier this season. In the Scottish Premier League, they are a point behind Celtic, but have a game in hand. They have three league matches left to play. They are already through to the final of the UEFA Cup and the final Scottish Cup. Now, over ten days between the 14th and the 24th of May, a remarkable season comes to a head with five matches that could yet see them walk away with next to nothing, or end the season as arguably the most successful club side in the world.
Leg One: Wednesday 14th May. UEFA Cup Final – Zenit St Petersburg: Ironically, the most difficult leg of their five match marathon might just prove to be the first. Zenit St Petersburg are no mugs. Owned and funded by the Russian giants Gazprom, money has been poured into ZPS, both on and off the pitch. They don’t have too many names that stand out as household names in the west (captain Anatoliy Tymoschuck is probably their best known player), but they knocked Bayern Munich out of the UEFA Cup semi-finals and are the current defending Russian champions. Rangers might have a slight advantage with the match being played at the City Of Manchester Stadium, but they face a stern test if they are to become the first Scottish club to win the UEFA Cup.
Leg Two: Saturday 17th May. SPL – Motherwell: Four days after the UEFA Cup final, it’s back to the grit of the Scottish Premier League with a trip to Fir Park to play Motherwell. Mark McGhee’s team have recovered admirably from the death of their captain Phil O’Donnell at the end of December. They are currently just one place behind Rangers in the SPL, although the lop-sided nature of Scottish football means that there are twenty-six points between them. They are, however, playing for third place in the league and a place in next year’s UEFA Cup, so this isn’t going to be an easy match for them either. Failure to win any of their remaining league matches will leave matters out of their control and Rangers depending on Celtic dropping points in on e of their two remaining SPL matches.
Leg Three: Monday 19th May. SPL – St Mirren: Skip forward a further forty-eight hours, and Rangers are on their travels again, this time to Love Street, Paisley, to play SPL also-rans St Mirren. The Buddies (to give them their nickname) are third from bottom in the SPL, though they are safe from fears of relegation because of the situation at Gretna. St Mirren away should be a routine enough three points for Rangers, but the worry for them is likely to be tiredness, as their third match in five days.
Leg Four: Thursday 22nd May. SPL – Aberdeen: Another potentially tricky away trip (none of these final five matches are at Ibrox, in case you were wondering). There’s a prickly history between Rangers and Aberdeen, and Dons supporters that still remember when their team briefly usurped Rangers to do battle with Celtic in the early-to-mid 1980s will be more than happy to cost Rangers another SPL title. Their fourth match in eight days, and it’s another potential banana skin. Aberdeen have had a bit of a nothing season in mid-table in the SPL, but are certainly capable of ruining Ranger’s league championship ambitions.
Leg Five: Saturday 24th May. Scottish Cup – Queen Of The South: It’s back to Hampden Park for the final match of the season – The Scottish Cup final against Queen Of The South. By the time this match comes around, we’ll know whether Rangers are playing for their fourth trophy of the season or whether they’re trying to rescue some consolation from the wreckage of the previous nine days. Queen Of The South are set to finish in fourth place in division one of the Scottish League this season, but they beat Aberdeen in an exceptional semi-final and might just be capable of causing a surprise.
So, the best case scenario (for Rangers at least) would see them cruising to victory in all five matches, winning three trophies to add to the Scottish League Cup that they already have under their belt. The worst case scenario would see them lost to Zenit St Petersburg, drop points in their remaining league matches to gift the SPL championship to Celtic and then, worn out and with their spirit broken, end up humiliated by QotS on the last day of the season. No matter how hard I look at that list of fixtures, I still can’t work out which is more likely.