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A test unlike any Rangers have faced this season

THERE is such an element as cold comfort.

United striker Nadir Cifitci says today's match will be 'a nice game'. It probably won't. Picture: SNS
United striker Nadir Cifitci says today's match will be 'a nice game'. It probably won't. Picture: SNS

Its most obvious manifestation occurred on March 9 in a stadium cooled by its proximity to the Moray Firth and the winds it produces.

Jackie McNamara, wrapped against the weather, watched his side out-think, outplay and outmuscle an Inverness Caledonian Thistle side that was expected to provide a stern challenge in the quarter-final of the William Hill Scottish Cup.

As darkness fell after an early kick-off, United were motoring south following a facile 5-0 victory that not only demonstrated their pace and ingenuity of movement but showcased a recently acquired trait. United were not only tough. They were sometimes tougher than Inverness. The home side had two players sent off but these dismissals occurred after the battle had been lost. United stood up to the physical challenge and sprinted away with a victory.

"We are good at playing a certain way but we have also shown we can adapt," said McNamara both reflecting on that early afternoon at the Tulloch Caledonian stadium and anticipating the challenge of a packed Ibrox where a place in the William Hill Scottish Cup final is the prize for both United and Rangers.

"We have to match them physically, that is a given," said the United manager of Rangers. "But we did that in the last round at Inverness. We matched them and got a couple of goals up in that match and started the game well and we will need to do that again against Rangers.

"We have learned the physical side this season, I think you have to."

If the Inverness game carried all the threat of a war, particularly after a fractious League Cup tie, then United were led from the front by Nadir Ciftci, who ripped into the Inverness central defence with unabashed belligerence.

The 22-year-old Turk epitomised the United performance. He was both physical and technical. It was the sort of display that drew admiration from the neutral observer and has filled United with optimism in the face of the trip to Ibrox.

Ciftci, though, is so sunnily confident that he did not need that chilly day at Inverness to bolster his belief that United will win today.

"With the players we've got in our team and the quality we've got, if we do what we're capable of then it shouldn't be a problem for us," he said in a breezy summation of events.

He is central to United's ambition of forcing Rangers on to the back foot with his ability to hold up the ball and play others in and to run channels with menace. Lee McCulloch and Bilel Mohsni have not faced anyone with such power, pace and technique this season. The confrontation between striker and central defence will be pivotal to how the match is played out.

The expectation is that there may be bruising exchanges in this area abut Ciftci is not a man to take a step back when faced with a large defender or a small tape recorder. His exuberance on the pitch is matched by his appetite for a sound bite off it.

"In football you expect it to be physical and we go into every match expecting a battle," he said in response to suggestions that today's match will present a challenge beyond technique. "We will just have to be prepared for anything that comes up. I don't know if Rangers will be physical against us, they might. We don't know what they'll do but they could try."

His confidence is bolstered by the experience of facing SPFL Premiership sides in tough matches this season. "We have had teams try to get us out of the game," he said. "But we've shown the right character against those sort of teams and have done well."

United endured a blip in form after Christmas when a 4-1 defeat by St Mirren triggered a dismal run that included defeats by St Johnstone, Aberdeen and Ross County. McNamara's side did not win a league match in January, before coming back to form in February. This period of failure was to be expected of a team with a significant proportion of young players but many also blamed an inability to deal with the physicality imposed by some teams.

Ciftci gives credence to this theory. He said: "At the start of the season we were maybe not there yet but in the last few games we have shown we're strong physically and mentally. If we take that attitude into Saturday we'll be fine."

Similarly, Ciftci was relaxed about the atmosphere that will be created with more than 30,000 Rangers supporters in a sold-out stadium. "I will enjoy going to Ibrox," he said. "It's a big stadium with a nice pitch and a big crowd - this is what you do it for. You want to be involved in these games, playing in the big stadiums and in front of big crowds is what football is all about."

He has also spoken to Pierre van Hooijdonk, his mentor and agent, about the former Celtic player's experience at Ibrox.

"The crowd at Ibrox didn't like him much so he said to just be ready for it," said Ciftci who is a yellow card away from being ruled out of the final if United win.

However, he prefers to look on the Rangers support not as a barrier to progress but a possible aid to reaching the final. "We don't know how their fans would react to losing an early goal, if they were to turn against their team then it would only be good for us," he said.

McNamara, though, preferred to concentrate on the practicalities of the tie rather than any possibilities.

"You have to earn the right to play and we have to do that by taking the game to Rangers, playing with high pressure to get the ball and when we get it we want to cause them problems," he said. "We don't want to sit off them. We are not that sort of team and we need to get at them."

This is a manifesto that ensures collisions all over the pitch. It was deeply felt statement about the realities of the tie.

Ciftci's parting words were not. "It will be a nice game," he said. It will not be, of course. But it has the capacity to be the most intriguing, most dramatic occasion of the season.

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