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Friday, May 23, 2003


Scottish Premier League title race set to go down to the wire

LONDON -- As Celtic flew home from Seville on Thursday after the UEFA Cup final against FC Porto (a 3-2 extra-time defeat) its preparations for what many believe is an even bigger game began immediately -- a league match away to Kilmarnock. The game may not have the romance of a European final but the Scottish championship reaches its most exciting climax ever on Sunday.

Christopher Davies

Celtic and Rangers are locked on points and goal difference at the top of the Bank of Scotland Premier League with Rangers holding the slimmest of advantages having scored one goal more than their Old Firm rival. A 1-0 win for Rangers against Dunfermline and a 2-1 victory for Celtic at Kilmarnock (and so on) would mean a championship playoff between the Glasgow teams at Hampden Park on June 3.

Neutrals (especially scalpers) are hoping the playoff becomes a reality, that after 38 matches Celtic and Rangers could not be separated and a one-off, winner-take-all game decides the title race with extra time and penalties if necessary.

Rangers appear to have the easier task on Sunday. They are at home to a Dunfermline side which is 11 points behind fifth-place Kilmarnock and Rangers manager Alex McLeish said: "Having our fans behind us will be a big factor.

"I don't want to be making idle boasts about ramming in goals because that would be disrespectful to Dunfermline but it's in our hands. Every dropped point and goal has proved to be vital in this title race, but now we're at home in the last game and we can do it."

A few weeks ago Celtic was eight points behind Rangers but a consistent run of results has seen Martin O'Neill's side reach the UEFA Cup final and, effectively, the championship final.

The only other time there has been a last-day decider for the Scottish title was in 1986, when Hearts threw away the championship allowing Celtic to secure an unlikely title success.

A point at Dundee would have clinched the championship for Hearts no matter what Celtic did at home to St. Mirren. With seven minutes remaining Dundee substitute Albert Kidd scored twice against Hearts as Celtic stuck five past St. Mirren to clinch the title on goal difference.

The most exciting finish to an English season came in 1989 when Arsenal needed to win by two clear goals at Anfield to deny Liverpool the title.

Alan Smith headed Arsenal into the lead and with one minute remaining Michael Thomas broke free to score the most important goal of his career to make the scoreline: runnerup Liverpool 0, champion Arsenal 2.

With one game remaining in the Scottish title race Celtic and Rangers know exactly what they have to do. Yet if both win by the same margin with Celtic scoring one more goal -- a 4-0 win for Rangers and a 5-1 victory for Celtic are scores not beyond the bounds of possibility -- the battle for Scottish football supremacy will be decided at Hampden Park.

Not just the title is at stake -- the winner goes into the potentially lucrative Champions League while the runnerup enters the UEFA Cup.

"You want an exciting league," said O'Neill. "The last couple of seasons were anti-climactic but here we have a race to the end."

It could hardly be more exciting this time around -- the title could even be decided by a missed penalty in a shootout, a stigma only the most hard-hearted fan from either side would wish on an opposing player.

As the guardian of European football, UEFA is duty bound to find a better disciplinary system than the existing one which has seen Pavel Nedved of Juventus banned from the Champions League final against AC Milan on May 28.

Nedved was rightly cautioned by Swiss referee Urs Meier during the 3-1 semifinal second-leg victory over Real Madrid for a rash challenge on Steve McManaman. It was the Czech Republic's third yellow card of the competition which means an automatic one-match ban.

The punishment does not fit the crime. Nedved has been cautioned three times in the 16 Champions League games he has played out of a possible 20, which hardly constitutes a poor disciplinary record, yet he will miss the biggest game of his career.

Teammate Alessio Tacchinardi has collected eight yellow cards and has served three suspensions this season for his excesses, yet is available to play against AC Milan. There is something wrong when a player booked eight times can play in the final while one cautioned three times (the first yellow card came in the first tie back in September) is suspended.

The showpiece game needs the best players and Nedved is certainly one of Europe's finest midfielders. Replacing Zinedine Zidane as Juventus' playmaker two years ago was no easy task, yet Nedved has proved the doubters wrong.

He barely missed a game as Juventus wrapped up another Italian title, having more shots per match than any other midfield player. He even scored the third goal against Real which proved decisive, but will watch the Old Trafford final from the tribune.

UEFA must consider a system whereby a player has one caution wiped out if he goes, for example, five games without a yellow card. It is unfair that a player booked in his first two matches and the semifinal second leg will miss the final while another, whose bookings have been more regular but better timed, is still eligible.

Roll on next season -- for many reasons, but one is to enjoy more Bobby dazzlers.

Sir Bobby Robson, the Newcastle manager, had a vintage season in 2002-2003 and will be hard-pressed to beat his contribution next time around.

Here is a selection of Bobby's best:

"Gary Speed has never played better, never looked fitter, never been older."

"Sarajevo isn't Hawaii."

"We don't want our players to be monks, we want them to be football players, because a monk doesn't play football at this level."

"If we start counting our chickens before they're hatched they won't lay any eggs in the basket."

"Football's like a big market place and people go to the market every day to buy their vegetables."

Another great season from Sir Bobby.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.

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