Greetings. Here is the third Monday sports takeaway, my look at the weekend sporting action as well as a glimpse at the road ahead. Once again, thanks for all the feedback and the DMs. Appreciate all the comments and observations.
EUROPEAN GAMES WILL PROVIDE FOOD THOUGHT
BEFORE THE MAIN COURSE OF OLD FIRM DERBY
Get ready to rumble for the first Old Firm week of the season. Celtic versus Rangers. Rodgers versus Gerrard. Former Liverpool master versus Kop apprentice. A towering match-up nobody – absolutely nobody – could ever have predicted taking place in Glasgow’s east end on a September Sunday afternoon. Mouth-watering fayre to garnish even the leanest of menus. First, though, both clubs must dine in a different setting – the Europa League. And hopefully the outcomes of both games will not leave a bitter taste in the mouth. Make no mistake – Celtic’s home encounter against Lithuanian side Suduva and Rangers mission to Russian to take on FC Ufa will set the mood for Sunday’s derby day showdown at Parkhead.
Failure to navigate this final play-off hurdle would be a hammer blow to either side’s claim that they are worthy of playing kick the can in the big boys’ playground of European football, having fallen short of being prefect material.
The weekend’s results provided contrasting appetisers for the main course. Rodgers’ Celtic toiled against Hamilton but still did enough to grind out a 1-0 win at home and bank three points.
Brendan Rodgers and Stevie Gerrard.
Gerrard saw the vagaries of management laid bare when Motherwell’s last-minute equaliser in a barnstorming 3-3 draw took some of the shine off a good week.
And then we had the sight of the unlikely lads, two comic-book villains turning into superheroes with goals that leapt off the pre-match script into back page headlines. Dedryck Boyata, wrongly vilified by a small section of his own fans for a perceived betrayal over his commitment to the Celtic cause, poked home the winner. No wonder he looked embarrassed. At Fir Park, Peter Hartley – rightly pilloried for stoking up the flames of hate after mocking Daniel Candeias’s broken nose in the fiery clash between the sides last October – popped up with that last-gasp equaliser to deny Rangers a second league win of the campaign. No wonder he milked the moment.
But it is a reminder again of how fickle football’s fates are.
Victory for Rangers would have seen them heading to Celtic Park holding a one-point advantage, psychologically good on paper and in the dressing room. Instead, Hartley and Boyata changed the dynamic of this weekend’s match, handing Celtic the narrowest of leverages.
But all that will count for nothing amid the blood and snotters of an Old Firm derby, Rodgers’ 11th – the record shows nine wins and two draws – and Gerrard’s first.
In the meantime, both clubs are scrambling to bolster their squads ahead of Friday before the transfer window finally slams shut. By any measure, it’s been a bizarre summer in the transfer market for both teams.
Rangers have spent money no one thought they had, while Celtic – Edsonne Edouard aside – have shunned Harrods for Poundstretchers, much to the well-publicised displeasure of Rodgers himself and the support.
Overall, however, Celtic retain the quality that provided the bedrock of historic back-to-back Trebles – and they will be looking to cement the superiority they have held over their oldest rivals since Rodgers’ arrival.
Gerrard, on the other hand, will be only too aware of the kudos and supporter-bragging rights victory will bring. That perhaps the guard could be changing.
One man who can maybe afford to filter out the white noise surrounding the Old Firm is Craig Levein, whose Hearts side find themselves unexpectedly looking down on the rest from the top of the table.
Levein continues to resurrect a reputation correctly trashed during his tenure as Scotland boss. Hearts look a side no one will relish playing. Up front, the hulking presence of Uche Ikpeazu – not so much a footballer as a Countdown conundrum – will undoubtedly ask questions of even the most uncompromising of backlines this season.
And the rest of the Tynecastle team is beginning to play with a verve and swagger other managers have good reason to envy.
The same observation could be made about Hibs and Neil Lennon, who, like Levein, is writing the lyrics to his own redemption song after the failure of his time at Bolton.
Lennon has again shown he has a knack for cherrypicking low-lying fruit from some of football’s less-well trampled orchards.
Daryl Horgan is the latest exhibit ‘A’ m’lud, having been rescued from the backwaters of Preston and, on the evidence of Saturday’s draw against Aberdeen at Pittodrie, the Republic of Ireland player already looks like the kind of player to put bums on seats.
That’s the kind of draw the game needs. Star turns who can help banish the staid chow of recent seasons into a football feast to satisfy even the hardest-to-please gastronome. Bon appetit.
McCANN IN THE FIRING LINE IF DUNDEE FIRE BLANKS AGAINST MOTHERWELL
Neil McCann was happy to swap the comfy chair of the Sky TV studio for the draughty constraints of the Dens Park dug-out. A vantage point where exposure guarantees he will hear every caustic comment and sharp-tongued barb directed at him from the Dundee faithful. Wonder how he feels now? Punditry and football management are very different beasts. Just ask Gary Neville.
Saturday’s 1-0 defeat to St Johnstone sees the Tayside club sitting in a familiar position – bottom of the Premiership after three games. Familiar because it’s virtually a mirror image of where they were this time last season under Paul Hartley. McCann was parachuted into his first real managerial role in April when Dundee, understandably jittery over the prospect of relegation, jettisoned Hartley. McCann, did well to keep his team in the top flight. But the feeling remains that the former Rangers star remains unsuited to football management. His prickly demeanour in public gives off the air of a man who views everyone – especially the media – with suspicion. It’s too early in the season to talk of McCann being bulleted, to wheel out clichés about six-pointers, even though this is a clash between the two teams currently propping up the division. But if Motherwell head back down the M90 with three points from Dens Park in the boot this weekend, the manager will unquestionably be in some people’s crosshairs. And then McCann could well be forced once again put a call in to Sky to ask if Rupert Murdoch’s shilling is still on the table.
WOLVES OFFER NO QUARTER TO PREMIERSHIP’S BIG GUNS
Wasn’t it great to see the Wolverhampton Warriors prove that, occasionally, the pampered princes of Manchester City are not unassailable? Their 1-1 weekend draw at home to Pep Guardiola’s side should give comfort and joy to all the other teams who thought this season’s Premiership title was already gift-wrapped and Etihad-bound. Wolves take to the field for every home game to the sound of Led Zeppelin’s thundering Immigrant Song, a nod to the band’s legendary front man and fervent fan Robert Plant. If they continue this form they may have to start playing Stairway to Heaven.
Incidentally, West Ham are now propping up the Premiership having lost all their first three league games. Interesting to ponder, is it not, whether they would be in that position had the club’s hierarchy not so quickly handed Davie Moyes his P45?
ANDY MURRAY OWES US NOTHING – THE DEBT HAS BEEN REPAID IN FULL
Andy Murray, pictured right, will tonight dredge up every ounce of his physical reserves on the first step to scaling tennis’s Mount Olympus again. It’s a long way up from the bottom. But this first round match at the US Open against Australian James Duckworth is the first real tentative rung on the ladder.
No one, though, should doubt his indomitable sense of willpower and determination, the twin accelerants that have propelled Murray throughout a stellar career.
He can be guaranteed a huge reception from the banks of seats at the Louis Armstrong Arena in Flushing Meadows, scene of his maiden Grand Slam back in 2013.
Win or lose, Murray, now 31 and currently 375 in the world rankings, owes us nothing. Zero. Nada. Indeed, the debt is ours to hold in perpetuity. Arguably, he is Scotland’s greatest sportsman, bracketed alongside Chris Hoy. Knights of the realm and sporting royalty.
Murray’s 14-month absence following career-threatening hip surgery has been just as painful for the sport he loves.
Tennis simply hasn’t been the same without watching the two-time Wimbledon champion and Olympic gold medallist wringing every last piece of face-twisting emotion from his game. Admit it, we all go through agonies watching him.
Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic have both shown it’s possible to navigate your way back from the depths of uncertainty after surgery or when your form unravels and the magic touch disappears. While, at 36, Roger Federer remains an age-defying force of nature.
But if Murray stumbles tonight – and he shouldn’t, although the menacing figure of Juan Del Potro is already in his mirror – the curtains may be drawing on his career. A future of unremitting pain and a crippling gait is a price no one should have to pay in a new chase for goals already achieved. Forget it Andy…Olympus has already fallen.
WOODS AND MICKELSON $9M DUEL IS WAY OFF COURSE
Sin City is the right setting for the nauseating $9million winner-takes-all shootout between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. Two multi-millionaires who, until recently, couldn’t bear to share the same atmosphere. But money doesn’t talk, it swears. And for a few dollars more, old animosities can easily be traded for a mountain of cash neither man needs. Hopefully right-minded golf fans will swerve the pay-by-view invitation and see this match-up for what it really it is – an exercise in self-serving greed and sickening hypocrisy. And one that shames and stains the sport.