Of course the obvious and immediate outcome is that the Scottish Premier League title race is by no means over. Not by a long shot. A Rangers win would have more or less sealed the league. But John Hartson was on target in the 57th minute to secure three of the most valuable points that Celtic has won since O’Neill’s arrival at Celtic Park. Despite Alex McLeish trying to claim that, regardless of the Old Firm result, there was still a lot of football to be played to win the league, the Rangers boss knows he could have won the title over the weekend. There is only a two-goal difference between the two sides and Celtic know exactly what they have to do with a game in hand and three points adrift.
O’Neill and Celtic have finally broken the stranglehold Rangers have had on them since McLeish arrived at Ibrox in December 2001. Unable to get a result in the last six games against their old rivals this Celtic win certainly makes up for the recent 17-month slump in the Old Firm clash. That clenched fist by O’Neill also indicates that the pressure is off and his Bhoys have set up a dream finale to the season. Tomorrow, the Hoops meet Liverpool in the UEFA Cup and on Sunday it’s Rangers again in the CIS Cup Final at Hampden. The Old Firm continues to bash it out but all eyes are on this European fixture against the Pool.
Confidence at Anfield is on the rise after recently beating Manchester United in the Worthington Cup and Bolton 2-0 in the league last weekend. Michael Owen scored in both games and he could easily go on a scoring streak, something Celtic will no doubt have in mind to stop. The Scottish outfit has done very well against EPL clubs this year and a win over Liverpool will shut SPL critics up, at least for a while. To think that Liverpool are more concerned with qualifying for the Champions League may be true for their season goals, but CL aspirations will quickly disappear tomorrow, just like they did in their Worthington Cup Final. How many Liverpool players were thinking of CL against United on that day? The answer is none. And it’s the same answer for tomorrow’s game against Celtic. The Hoops have become accustomed to playing the first leg at home in the competition. Clean sheets have been the key reason to their success in UEFA; it will be very much on the agenda against Liverpool.
On a broader scale it does seem like EPL clubs are falling prey to the underdogs of so-called weaker Scottish, Irish and Division 1 sides. On the back of Tottenham Hotspur being taught a friendly lesson by Eircom’s Bohemians last week, Leeds United, beaten 1-0, were dumped out of the F.A. Cup by Division 1 Sheffield United. Joining the Blades in the semifinals is another Division 1 team, Watford. While Sheffield await the result of Chelsea vs. Arsenal, Watford take on Southampton. Of course, there is the excuse that top teams do not take the F.A. Cup too seriously anymore, but ask the Gunners and Saints do they want cup glory now that they are in the semis. If the elite teams are less interested in the F.A. Cup well having four Division 1 teams in the quarterfinals makes sense. But results in the cup such as Wolves 3 Newcastle 2, Shrewsbury 2 Everton 1 and Liverpool 0 Crystal Palace 2 does hold a question mark over the highly-rated premier league and its elite teams. Nonetheless, we shall see how it goes against Celtic, Sheffield and Watford.
As far as the Champions League is concerned Arsenal were stopped in their tracks by Ajax, while Newcastle have still a lot to do to reach the quarters. Manchester United have shown lots of class in the CL but their domestic performance has been somewhat below standard. Furthermore, the luck of the draw has been on their side in the Champions League.
The newest team in the top bracket in England is Everton while Charlton continue to overachieve. But it’s the usual clubs that dominate, namely Arsenal and Manchester United. Newcastle now joins Chelsea as possible threats while Liverpool try to make up ground to join that pack. Blackburn, Spurs, Southampton and Boro are turning in decent seasons with some bright stuff by Manchester City. But as far as the rest of the teams in the premier are concerned perhaps it’s time to have a shorter list of clubs in the league.
No doubt a team or two will surge out of the bottom half, while one or two may sink from the top. It’s also entertaining to see teams towards the end of the year winning a relegation battle. But the demand for elite football is all that TV is concerned with. Viewers get turned off by a bad game, and many a bad game has been aired over the year. The bad ones are easy to forget when it comes to final games in the season. To keep televised games on the pulse and entertaining, league systems need to be reviewed.
Who wouldn’t want to see Celtic play EPL teams every week? (With all due respect to the SPL). The EPL does have at least 10 teams that can give each other a run for their money but the Old Firm is way too far ahead in their league. There is a gap of approximately 28 points and 50 goals between the Firm and third place in the table. Both leagues have been one-sided for way too long, and it does get boring until we are spoiled with season finales. Nevertheless, who could ask for a better game than Celtic vs. Liverpool.
The two teams have a different style of play. Liverpool will likely sit in and wait for a counter using Michael Owen’s speed. Celtic on the other hand will look to attack wide and down the flank to cross. Then again, O’Neill could be cunning enough to sit in and play Liverpool at their own game. One thing is for sure, many a supporter will have an uneasy day tomorrow because Celtic and Liverpool are one of the most popular duets to follow in football. Can Celtic continue to degrade EPL teams, or can Liverpool revive EPL respectability.