FOOTBALL: CUP FINAL COUNTDOWN: CELTIC v RANGERS: WE'LL SERVE UP A CLASSIC TO END THE BLUES; SAYS MARTIN O'NEILL.
MARTIN O'Neill may have had other things on his mind this week but he's not missed the carnage taking place in Scottish football.
The Celtic manager has watched near neighbours Airdrie go out of business and SPL rivals Motherwell placed up for sale.
After the horror headlines, no-one has to tell the Irishman that our game desperately needs a classic cup final.
And nothing would please O'Neill more if the Old Firm obliged by serving up a high quality, red-card free, clash tomorrow.
So long as Celtic win, of course.
The Celtic boss was at Hampden yesterday to get a look at the impressive new playing surface, laid incidentally by the firm which provided the turf for the Hoops' win against Ajax in Amsterdam last August.
He said: "The pitch looks fine and I think the onus is on both sides to produce an attractive game.
"People outside the SPL and in countries like France will tune in and we would want them to see a good game.
"Obviously that would give a boost to the SPL - and Alex will say exactly the same.
"I'd love the final to be a great game of football and I'd like us to win."
The last clash between the sides two weeks ago was marred by a late flurry of red cards which was the lasting impression the rest of the world was given.
Celtic's players have been told this week to keep their discipline.
O'Neill said: "We said to the players that we have a better chance of winning if we have 11 players on the field rather than 10, nine or eight."
He may have emphasised the need to put football first on Saturday, but that doesn't mean winning is any less important to the Parkhead club.
Having won the title and secured a place in Europe the season has been a success whatever happens in the cup final.
Rangers' defender Lorenzo Amoruso has insisted his side are more desperate to win the cup than Celtic.
O'Neill though is anything but convinced about that.
He said: "It's a cup final and that makes it extremely important. It's against Rangers and that makes it extra important.
"That combination makes it just about as important as you can get.
"If we lose it it will be a long old summer."
He added: "But I will be really disappointed if we lose and so will the boys but I think we've improved as a team since this time last year when we won all three.
"We could end up with one trophy, albeit an important one, but hopefully losing the cup wouldn't deflect from winning the league.
"I don't think Rangers will be any hungrier to win the cup than we are. My players will be craving a win."
O'Neill couldn't have anticipated that he would be facing the same manager he was up against last season when his side completed the Treble with a win over Hibs.
But he will now go head-to-head with Alex McLeish again and any respect he feels for his opposite number will not turn into sympathy if his side does complete a double this time.
O'Neill said: "Alex is a very good manager and he will prove that over the years.
"However, I don't think you really care about how the other manager is feeling on the day.
"I was watching some of the play-off between Wolves and Norwich last night and if you saw the faces of the Wolves fans afterwards they were devastated.
"I don't think Norwich will have spared them a thought, although maybe they will when they see it a couple of days later. When we played Alex and Hibs last season they had enjoyed a very good season and went in to the match with plenty of confidence.
"That must have been boosted when Lubo went off with a gashed leg early on.
"But we won and on the day you have delight for your own team and your supporters.
"I don't think that if Alex wins this time he'll have a drink for my benefit."
Hampden was in a disgraceful condition the last time the sides met there in the CIS Cup semi-final in February.
But the pitch doctors SIS seem to have turned out the quality of pitch they have previously laid at stadiums like the Stade de France, the Millennium Stadium and the Amsterdam ArenA.
O'Neill said: "We rolled the ball about the pitch here and there after the SFA said we could do that. But we won't really know how good it is until we've tried it - but it seems to have knitted well and really looks fine.
"A man responsible for the pitch said that he also did the Ajax pitch just before we played them.
"They had a competition involving teams like AC Milan and Liverpool but they went and re-laid it just three days before they played us.
"The pitch coped very well and I'm sure it will be fine on Saturday and absolutely spot on for the Champions League final."
The omens would now seem to be in Celtic's favour considering they won 3-1 in Amsterdam.
However, on the day when superstition prevented the two managers from holding the cup, that was an area the Celtic boss was avoiding like the plague.
Spooky or what?
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|Publication:||The Mirror (London, England)|
|Date:||May 3, 2002|
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