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Tense times for treble chasers Ibrox men look worse for wear

A GAP which was seven points has been reduced to only four over the course of two matches.

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The premier division championship is almost within Rangers' grasp, but looking the worse for wear, it seems as though the Ibrox side are afraid to reach out and take the prize.

Tense times indeed, and it will be interesting to see how Walter Smith's players react tomorrow night at Easter Road after having dropped three points in their last two games.

Could it be their nerve has gone with only three matches still to be played? Is the thought of making history by becoming the first club to win back-to-back trebles weighing too heavily on their minds?

''Losing our nerve? Us? Not a chance of that happening,'' said Stuart McCall, even though he and his team-mates had just managed to survive a difficult match against a makeshift Celtic side, who had to play at Ibrox which was an even more hostile place for them than usual.

Almost 46,000 supporters were in the place, and apart from a quiet handful of Celtic fans, who probably had to sit on their hands when John Collins opened the scoring, they were all backing Rangers in the final Old Firm match of the season.

Rangers' chairman David Murray has banned Celtic supporters from Ibrox until a repair bill has been paid, but the exclusion order did not help his own side much. If anything, in fact, it probably worked against Rangers.

Normally, the Ibrox faithful vent their spleens at Celtic's supporters, who traditionally are housed in the Broomloan Stand.

But on Saturday when the match was going badly for Rangers, their own players became targets for abuse. Fortunately, the Scottish League will issue a new edict after their annual meeting at the end of the season and Rangers will have to allow Celtic's fans back in.

Murray has made his point and some kind of normality (if there is such a thing as a normal state of affairs in Old Firm games) will be restored. In the meantime, manager Walter Smith will attempt to maintain custom by persuading his players to give a little bit more and clinch a sixth consecutive championship.

They could do it tomorrow night against Hibernian if they win, and Motherwell, who are at home to Dundee United, drop a point. And Smith remains confident of his team's abilities despite their recent difficulties against the Fir Park side and then Celtic, whose manager Lou Macari punched the air in triumph at the end of the 1-1 draw at Ibrox.

Clearly, he felt Celtic had won a moral victory as well as a point.

Macari's elation was understandable because he had gone into the game without several first-choice men and had to push players like Tony Mowbray, Dariusz Wdowczyk, and Peter Grant into action.

However, even allowing for Macari's lack of resources, there was something disturbing about watching a Celtic team flood back in numbers. It was against this club's traditions. Celtic are synonymous with attacking flair and it would be depressing if they were to sacrifice that very quality for a more cautious approach to the game.

Perhaps Charlie Nicholas, who has come to terms with the reality that his career at Parkhead is over, is moving out at the right time. A player like Nicholas, whose game is based on skill and cunning, could never square defensive play with his conscience, but hopefully Macari's tactics on Saturday won't have to be repeated too often.

He was happy with his point, yet had Celtic pushed forward after their goal they might have scored again so feeble was Rangers' defence. Instead, Celtic settled for one and sat back leaving Rangers to find ways through. The Ibrox side failed miserably.

Most of Smith's players appeared jaded and in need of a long furlough. The close season can't come quickly enough as the rigours of having played too many matches in recent seasons because of their own success begins to take a heavy toll.

It is also the case that too many of Smith's highly successful squad are reaching that dangerous age in football -- 30 something -- at the same time and will have to be replaced. There isn't a lot of mileage left in several of the players who peaked last season, winning the treble and striding to the edge of glory in the European Cup.

Having been there once Rangers must return, and Smith will have to import during the break. He needs a central defender, a full back, and a midfield player, and the kind of quality required does not come cheaply.

In the last few weeks of the season, however, he will have to coax enough from players to secure the title and return to Hampden for the Scottish Cup final. The first part is well within their remaining capabilities, but the final against Dundee United will test them to the full.

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