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Rugby Park will host latest 'cup final' for Kilmarnock

YOU hear so often of managers telling their players to just go out and enjoy matches against Celtic or Rangers, to express themselves, to soak up the atmosphere and revel in the experience of taking on the biggest teams in the country.

Not so Allan Johnston, the Kilmarnock manager. "You enjoy it if you score," he said, shaking his head firmly. "You don't go out to enjoy it."

Pragmatism is the order of the day at Rugby Park. At first glance, the SPFL Premiership table makes for decent looking. Kilmarnock sit four points clear of the relegation play-off spot, having played a game more. After tonight's hosting of Celtic, though, away days at Motherwell and Aberdeen beckon, with a home game against St Johnstone concluding a quadruple whammy of pre-split fixtures featuring teams exclusively from the top half of the table.

The problem? Kilmarnock have only taken a frighteningly pitiful four points from 14 games against top-six opposition this season. The fact that they have snatched 26 from their fellow strugglers bodes well for the bloody, post-split dogfight, of course, but a blank return from the next four matches might leave them having to catch up.

"It's going to be really tough, but at this stage of the season with the position we're in as well, every game's a cup final for us," Johnston said. "We've got to give it everything; it's going to take a real team performance to get any sort of result against Celtic as their record speaks for itself."

Johnston was unsure whether Celtic's valiant surrendering of their unbeaten record against Aberdeen was reason to be cheerful. On the one hand, it has lifted the pressure, giving their players the freedom to express their undoubted attacking wiles. But on the other, if Kilmarnock can somehow snatch a lead, there might not be the same ferocious desire to peg them back.

"It's hard to tell whether that works in your favour or not," Johnston admitted. "It'd be hard to keep players motivated and that's why you continually set targets or whatever. But we've got to worry about ourselves and set our own targets and start picking up points even if it's against the big teams."

Kilmarnock were beaten soundly at Celtic Park in January, with the manager admitted the hosts had been "a class apart". It was a tricky match crammed under midweek lights, though, and Johnston had one eye on a big home game against Ross County on the Saturday. Kris Boyd, talisman and the Premiership's joint-top scorer - he goes head to head with his rival Kris Commons this evening - was rested. There will be no chance of that happening this time. "Boydy's the first name on the team sheet," Johnston said.

The striker modestly stated after a 4-2 win over Hearts at the weekend that he had not expected to find the net with such regularity this season. Johnston chuckled when this was put to him. "The first thing he said to me was 'I'll score you over 20 goals'."

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