Rangers will make the short journey across the south side of Glasgow on Sunday afternoon in much better spirits than they did some 15 months ago when last facing their great rivals Celtic – on that occasion in the League Cup semi-finals.
The Light Blues of 2016 may go into this Scottish Cup clash as underdogs – but they will certainly not be beaten before the start as one suspects was the case last year under Kenny McDowall.
Mark Warburton does not have his selection problems to seek with both Michael O’Halloran and Billy King ineligible due to being cup tied with their previous clubs whilst Harry Forrester is out through an injury suffered in last Sunday’s Challenge Cup Final at the same venue – a blow that the Ibrox boss could well have done without.
Leading scorer Martyn Waghorn has been the subject of some speculation that he may feature as a substitute, but the Rangers manager dismissed the suggestion.
“Martyn Waghorn’s not fit. He’s not far away, he’ll start training with us next week,” Warburton said.
“He won’t be involved in the semi-final. He’s a top professional and wants to play but unfortunately it’s come ten days too early for him.” The loss of Forrester is similarly a serious blow in terms of the Ibrox side’s attacking options.
“It’s a shame to lose Harry – he gives us flexibility and balance,” Warburton said.
“He’s a talented player who has signed a new contract and has done very well. I’m disappointed for him – he was desperate to play in the game. It will require a bit of juggling. We don’t have Billy King and Michael O’Halloran – both wide players – as is Harry. We’ve lost both width and balance but all you can do is prepare your players as best you can.”
The Ibrox boss acknowledged that Celtic go into the semi as favourites.
“Celtic must have a stronger squad. They’re top of the Premiership, they’ve been in Europe and have a very strong financial budget – but it’s not so much a question of how big your budget is but how you spend it.”
However there was certainly nothing but an optimistic attitude from Warburton as he looked ahead to a fixture that surely represents his greatest challenge to date.
“We’ve delivered a consistent level of performance all season and the boys have got their reward, winning both the Championship and the Challenge Cup. We’re in good shape. We’ve reached a good standard of football this season – but there’s still improvements to be made.
“We’re not going into this game with any negativity. We want to win but we have to recognise that there has to be a gap. Our job is to close it. Any neutral would regard Celtic as the favourites and that’s not me being negative in any shape or form. You’ve got to prepare for it and enjoy it. The worst thing we could do would be to walk off the pitch with regrets.”
The Rangers boss may be a newcomer to football life in Glasgow, but he left no doubt in anyone’s mind that he knows just what this game means to the Light Blue legions.
“This is one of the biggest games in World Football in terms of local derbies. It will be an emotion-packed arena. I would be delighted for the club to win this game. I know what they’ve been through during the past four or five years. It would be magnificent to reach the Scottish Cup Final.”