Celtic FC must bounce back from UEFA Cup final defeat as the Scottish title race reaches its dénouement.
After losing in a major European final to a 115th-minute goal, most teams would look to regroup and rest for the summer. Four days after defeat by FC Porto for the UEFA Cup, though, Celtic FC will be back in action as one of Europe's fiercest club rivalries reaches its latest and potentially most dramatic dénouement.
Going into Sunday's final round of Scottish Premier League fixtures, title-holders Celtic trail Glasgow neighbours Rangers FC by the matter of a single goal scored. With the two sides a mere 34 points ahead of third place, their traditional dominance of the division has taken on a new dimension this season, and the question may be not whether Rangers will win at home to Dunfermline Athletic FC or Celtic will triumph at Kilmarnock FC, but which will secure the biggest victory margin and take the title. Indeed, Dunfermline have not won at Rangers since 1971/72, although Kilmarnock held Celtic on their visit to Rugby Park earlier this season.
It is 18 years since Aberdeen FC were the last team to break the 'Old Firm' title monopoly, but rarely have the two contenders been so evenly matched. Had Rangers only beaten Heart of Midlothian FC 1-0 rather than 2-0 last Sunday, 38-time champions Celtic would be leading the league on goal difference. As it is Rangers, who are attempting to become the first European club to win their domestic title for the 50th time, have scored and conceded a goal more than their rivals.
Indeed, should the teams' points total and goal differences remain the same after Sunday's matches, the league would be decided by goals scored for the first time. And if the two sides are level on all three counts, an unprecedented play-off will take place at Glasgow's Hampden Park on Tuesday 3 June. So great it is the interest in the title race, BBC Scotland has cleared the schedules to show a game on each of its two terrestrial channels.
For Celtic, who remain without striker John Hartson due to a back injury, defending their league title would provide a winning end to a season which has seen them reach their first European final for 33 years, and yet remains trophyless. Treble-chasing Rangers got the better of them in the Scottish League Cup final, and Inverness Caledonian Thistle FC gained their second shock victory against Celtic in recent years in the Scottish Cup.
However, Celtic have dragged themselves back into the title race despite trailing by nine points last month, and Rangers manager Alex McLeish, whose team is fully fit, is so concerned his team know exactly how their rivals are doing that the Kilmarnock match will be shown on the big screens inside Ibrox. "
The energy of the Rangers fans behind us at home will be a big factor," he said. To add to the visitors' task, André Karnebeek, Andrius Skerla, Scott Thomson, Jim Hamilton, Noel Hunt and Steven Hampshire are all injured.
Celtic, playing a Kilmarnock side without suspended Andy McLaren and injured Chris Innes, will need to bounce back from that dramatic loss to Porto, but manager Martin O'Neill admitted: "I cannot even think about Sunday's game at all. This was the UEFA Cup final, give it its rightful position. I need to get over the disappointment." Rangers have been able to focus fully, and striker Shota Arveladze said: "It is getting tasty now, isn't it? We have one game to win the league and hopefully everything will work out for us at the weekend."