THE argument that Celtic versus Rangers doesn’t matter as much these days isn’t borne out by the frenzy that materialises any time the fixture comes around.

Celtic fans will continue to insist the concept of the Old Firm has been defunct since Rangers went into liquidation in 2012, spent several years grubbing around in the lower leagues before winning promotion to the top flight last summer.

Even the Parkhead club in their official communiques now refer to the match against their deadliest rivals as “the Glasgow derby”, placing it on a par with contests against Partick Thistle and Queen’s Park.

Read more: Rangers will have to wait for Pedro Caixinha as interim manager Graeme Murty prepares to head for Celtic Park

The debate over whether Rangers are legally, historically and financially the same club or not will endure until the cows have come home, had their supper and gone to bed. That will never change.

But what is indisputable is that there is a team called Rangers playing out of Ibrox in light blue strips and that the enmity between both sets of supporters is as bitter now as it was prior to Rangers’ financial meltdown five years ago.

The gleeful reaction from the Celtic supporters following the three victories their team has secured over them this season did not suggest these had been achieved against a new, insignificant rival, or were humdrum wins over just another Premiership foe. As much as they may not wish to admit it, these were results that meant something tangibly more.

Sunday’s draw for the semi-finals of the William Hill Scottish Cup means there will be another three of these Glasgow derbies before the season is out. Each will involve the same feverish build-up, be the centre of extensive focus during the 90 minutes, and will produce page upon page of post-match analysis. There will not be a ticket to be had for love nor money at either end of each ground.

The first two contests, in particular, will be hugely significant. Celtic are inching ever closer to completing the formalities on their sixth championship in succession and a win over Rangers this Sunday will take them almost to the finish line. The Ibrox side, who could well have a new manager in place by then, would love nothing more than to halt that momentum by handing Celtic a first domestic defeat of the campaign.

Read more: Rangers will have to wait for Pedro Caixinha as interim manager Graeme Murty prepares to head for Celtic Park

The second meeting will be that semi-final tie at Hampden next month. Again there will be a special resonance attached to it. Celtic are now just two wins away from completing a first treble since 2001 but must first navigate their way beyond a Rangers team who, lest anyone has forgotten, knocked them out of the same competition at the same stage last season. Celtic fans, though, will argue that a Celtic team managed by Brendan Rodgers is a far more formidable beast to the one helmed by Ronny Deila last April.

The final part of the remaining Old Firm trilogy of matches will take place after the split at Ibrox on an as-yet-to-be-decided date. The league will be won by then and only one side will be looking forward to the Scottish Cup final but, even with little of consequence riding on it, it will likely still be as frenetic as before.

Having more than the standard four meetings between the clubs in a season is not a new thing. In 2010/11 the sides played each other seven times – a tempestuous replay settled their Scottish Cup square-off – while in 2004/05 they crossed swords on six different occasions. Each one of those games was as eagerly anticipated as the one that preceded it.

Perhaps the biggest difference this time around is that these fixtures are no longer taking place on a level playing field. Six seasons ago when they faced off seven times, Rangers won two of the games, Celtic won three, and the other two were drawn. In 2004/05, the teams shared three victories apiece. It was an era in which there was very little to separate them.

Read more: Rangers will have to wait for Pedro Caixinha as interim manager Graeme Murty prepares to head for Celtic Park

Now, it is a lot easier to label the favourite and the underdog in this battle. Rangers, buoyed by that Scottish Cup semi-final win at the end of last season, had hoped the previous duopoly would be immediately restored this season, a return to the days of two sides duking it out for the title.

The reality, though, has been something different. Celtic ran out comfortable 5-1 winners in the opening league game, needed a late Moussa Dembele goal to squeeze into the League Cup final, then came from behind to win the league match at Ibrox on Hogmanay.

Now firmly in their stride, Rodgers’ side will be expected to go on to further asset their dominance over their rivals in the three derbies still to come. The Rangers fans may come to approach these games with a slight sense of dread but the anticipation on both sides will still tingle as before. That is something that will never change.

HeraldScotland | Sport

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