By Simon Hart
For Graeme Souness, it seems there is a ghost at every turn of Blackburn Rovers FC's European journey this season.
In the UEFA Cup first round, Souness crossed swords with PFC CSKA Sofia coach Stoycho Mladenov, an old adversary from his days as an aggressive playmaker with Liverpool FC. He emerged the winner, Blackburn progressing on away goals after a 3-3 thriller in Sofia, and was rewarded with a second-round match against Celtic FC - a tie whose Anglo-Scottish spice acquires extra piquancy through Souness's association with the Glasgow club's great rivals, Rangers FC.
Success at Rangers
Souness was in charge of Rangers from 1986-91, in which time he collected four league championships and paved the way for an era of domination only ended by Martin O'Neill's appointment as Celtic manager in 2000. So Blackburn's Scottish manager - who signed Rangers' first-ever Catholic player in the former Celtic hero Mo Johnston - can expect a hot reception when he steps out in front of more than 60,000 supporters in Glasgow on Thursday. Not surprisingly, he cannot wait.
"Yes, it is spicy because it is Celtic," said Souness. "I cannot deny that. I am looking forward to it." The 49-year-old added: "
The atmosphere will be more hostile than anything these lads have experienced. The more hostile it was the more it turned me on as a player, and as manager I think I am still the same. I am going there with a young team who will find the Parkhead atmosphere unique."
'We can match anyone'
Unique maybe but Souness said he expected his players "to handle it", and Blackburn's 2-1 victory at Arsenal FC last Saturday certainly suggests they can do so. The win left the English League Cup holders seventh in the Premiership and with just one defeat in their last eight games. "On our day we can match any team," said Souness.
Not that Celtic will be overawed, mind. The Scottish champions - the first British side to lift the European Champion Clubs' Cup in 1967 - have won eight of their last nine games, including home and away victories over FK Suduva in the last round of this competition. A 4-1 win at Dunfermline Athletic FC on Sunday kept them in second place behind Rangers in the Scottish Premier League.
Fit to play
O'Neill - like Souness, a European Cup winner in his playing days with Nottingham Forest FC - can call on Stilian Petrov after tests confirmed the Bulgarian international had only chipped a bone in his right hand and can play wearing a light support. Celtic striker Chris Sutton will also feature against his former club. As for Blackburn, striker Andy Cole and winger Damien Duff - a Celtic supporter - are back after hamstring injuries, while goalkeeper Brad Friedel should play despite a knee ligament problem.
This will be the 25th Anglo-Scottish encounter in European competition. Celtic were involved in the most recent, in the first round of the 1997/98 UEFA Cup when they lost on away goals against Liverpool FC - the 18th English win compared to just six Scottish successes. Souness is hopeful of another English victory. "We'll be trying to win the game because I've got a group of players who always try to win," he said. Souness may be confronting ghosts of his past, but haunted he is most definitely not.
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