OFTEN the anticipation of something turns out to be more enjoyable than the occasion itself. Christmas being a prime and pertinent example.

What chance, then, this afternoon’s Betfred Cup final living up to all the pre-match hype? For it is going to have to be the mother of all encounters to do it justice.

There have been fans, pundits and media alike salivating over the prospect of this tie since the semi-final draw on September 25 kept Celtic and Rangers apart.

But the reality is this is a match that Scottish football has been eagerly anticipating for the best part of a decade. And now it is finally here, we will soon discover if it has been worth the wait.

Rangers’ financial implosion in 2012 and their gradual climb back to the top distorted the landscape and disbanded the traditional duopoly.

A clutch of clubs lifted trophies – some for the first time – during that period between Rangers going into liquidation and Brendan Rodgers’ arrival at Celtic in 2016. There were memories created in that time frame that will last a lifetime. But Scottish football needed the traditional Old Firm rivalry back.

There was a taste of it in the 2016 Scottish Cup semi-final when Rangers beat their deadly rivals on penalties only to lose to Hibs in the final, and again in the league once the Ibrox side had won promotion back to the top division.

A cup final, though, elevates the spectacle to another level entirely. And with Rangers edging gradually back to their pre-2012 levels of competitiveness, it presents the tantalising prospect of the two sides heading into the final on almost level footing.

At the time of writing, the bookmakers have Celtic as favourites but only the bold or foolish would part with their money with any real conviction.

The League Cup usually comes in a distant third in the ranking of Scottish football’s domestic trophies but this is a match that ought to give it some renewed status. It has been written about and discussed in huge detail for weeks now, with European ties and league matches demoted to secondary importance behind cup final chatter.

There have been newspaper pull-outs of yesteryear finals, fearless pundit predictions, endless injury speculation and detailed tactical analysis like never before. It has been wall-to-wall coverage on the only show in town.

BT Sport will today devote nine hours of programming around the final. And that isn’t usually the case. It may be hard for neutrals – and some Celtic fans – to admit but Scottish football needs this fixture. Even those with little interest in the affairs of either side from week to week will be tuning in this afternoon, out of curiosity as much as anything.

This is the crown jewel in the SPFL’s portfolio, the only match to draw any sustained interest outside of our borders. It is no surprise the value of the television rights diminished when Rangers weren’t in the league to compete with Celtic four times a season.

All eyes, then, will be on Hampden this afternoon. And the hope is that two things materialise. One is that both sides contrive to put on a match worthy of the spotlight.

These are two teams built to attack. But with a trophy on the line it would not be a surprise if there was an unaccustomed element of caution to proceedings. Celtic, defending a flawless three-year domestic record when it comes to collective silverware, won’t want to do anything to put that sequence at risk.

Rangers, in turn, will be aware of Celtic’s potency in attack and will be loath to fall behind in the contest lest they leave themselves with too much to do to retrieve it.

It may make for a cagey opening. But hopefully – for us neutrals at least – the final will eventually open up into a high-scoring classic, ideally also involving extra-time, penalties, a red card or two and a few other memorable and contentious moments. Nobody, beyond the eventual victors, wants this to fizzle out as a damp squib.

More importantly, however, is that supporters on both sides keep their cool. Yes, there is a huge amount at stake for the clubs, players and managers but ultimately it is only still a game of football. Fans have to retain a sense of perspective.

These matches have tended to be well-policed in and around the stadium in recent times. The days of running battles in the streets around Ibrox and Celtic Park appear to be mercifully consigned to the past.

But with a 3pm kick-off rather than the traditional lunch-time start as is the case for league matches, there is a more than decent possibility of excessive drinking around the country from the moment the pubs open until the game gets underway. And then the same again once the final whistle has sounded.

The biggest losers on these occasions tend to be the overworked staff at hospital A&E departments as the fall-out from the result turns to mindless aggression. Domestic violence rates spike dramatically, too.

Whoever loses the final will naturally be disappointed. But it is important to keep everything in context.

Let’s hope the extensive coverage tomorrow is all about the football and not about any havoc wreaked in the aftermath.