Scott Brown v Joey Barton: Who will win clash of Old Firm enforcers?
Ever since Joey Barton put pen to paper at Ibrox in the summer, the clocks started ticking towards Old Firm day.
Not just to Celtic versus Rangers and the craziness of the fixture but to the drama within the drama, the individual battle between Barton and the man Barton has sought to wind-up, Celtic captain Scott Brown.
Barton had barely set foot in Scotland when he started to taunt his counterpart in the Celtic team.
"People keep talking about Scott Brown v Joey Barton," said the Rangers man. "He's not even in my league. He's nowhere near the level of player I am.
"He can't get near me. If I play well, Brown doesn't stand a chance."
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There's been verbals on both sides, the kind of trash talk that prize-fighters might be proud of.
Brown mocked Barton for an old comment the Englishman made about being a Celtic fan. Barton retaliated by tweeting a picture of Brown wearing a Rangers jersey in his youth.
Barton revels in this stuff. Most recently - out of mischief or boredom, or whatever else goes on inside his head - he had a pop at Brendan Rodgers, the Celtic manager. He joked on radio about Rodgers' year-round tan, the whiteness of his teeth and the suspicion he held that Rodgers was in the midst of a midlife crisis.
His employers at Ibrox let it go. Manager Mark Warburton likes to talk about respect. But, oddly, he found no fault with Barton making fun of Rodgers. It was just Joey being Joey.
Off the field, yes. Barton has been his roguish self. On the field? He's been like a different person. Diminished, ineffective, almost harmless.
Tale of the tape
Brown is 31 years old; Barton is 34. The Celtic player has more than 500 club appearances under his belt; Barton has just over 400. Brown has six red cards in his career, Barton has nine.
They've both been written off numerous times over the years; Barton because of his myriad and madcap bouts of indiscipline and occasional thuggishness and Brown because of his injuries, his errant passing, his lack of influence on big games. They're criticised and they come again. Mental strength is not a quality that either of them lacks.
Right now, only one of them has form. Injury reduced Brown to a lesser player last season, but he's looked powerful again in the early weeks of this season.
To think back to what he was like on the day Rangers beat Celtic in a penalty shoot-out in the semi-final of the Scottish Cup is to be reminded of the change that has come over him. That day, weakened by wear and tear, he was routed by Rangers' Andy Halliday.
It was just the latest time in his years at Celtic when fans and journalists signalled that his end was nigh. Since then, the medics have sorted his body and Rodgers has worked on his mind.
Barring one poor game in Israel against Hapoel Be'er Sheva, he has been excellent. He has retired from international football to concentrate solely on Celtic.
He's back in the Champions League group stage with his club. We didn't know it at the time, but his goal in the first leg was the one that ended up taking them there.
Barton has put pressure on himself with his bragging, but he hasn't backed it up. He's been nutmegged by Hamilton's Ali Crawford in the creation of one goal, he's been left for dead by Kilmarnock's Greg Kiltie in the build-up to another, he's been on the end of one horrible tackle by Peterhead's Nathan Blockley and on the end of an even worse one by Killie's Greg Taylor.
Both of them got sent-off, which makes a mockery of the notion that Barton is the one who dishes it out. Not this season.
He's been on the receiving end since he came to Scotland. Players have been looking for his scalp. Barton has only played seven games for Rangers, but he could have suffered a serious injury already.
Barton and bruised
That Friday night game against Kilmarnock was instructive for Barton watchers. Peter Lovenkrands, the former Rangers player, was doing co-commentary for BBC Radio Scotland and he spoke about how frustrated his friend, the Rangers full-back James Tavernier, had become at losing free-kick taking duties to Barton.
Barton was on dead balls and did nothing with any of them. Tavernier was given a chance while Rangers were trailing 1-0 and promptly rifled a wondrous free-kick into the back of the Killie net.
Lovenkrands said that surely now Tavernier had got his gig back. Barton soon left the field, tired and shaking his head in frustration.
In truth, had his name not been Joey Barton, you wouldn't have thought anything of him. If he was Joey Bloggs, you would scarcely have noticed him.
He was peripheral. His passing was mixed and his fitness debatable. Everything was slow in the heart of that Rangers midfield. They had tonnes of possession, but there was little pace or dynamism. Barton hung about as a defensive midfielder, looking like a fire-fighter in need of a fire.
It begged the question - how could Barton go from a deservedly lauded player of the year last season at Burnley, who got promoted to the Premier League as winners of the Championship, to an ordinary Joe in league games against Hamilton, Dundee, Motherwell and Kilmarnock - teams that finished 10th, eighth, fifth and 11th in last season's Premiership?
Barton's performances for Burnley were deemed outstanding by those who watched him every week. He played 40 games, won 22 and lost only five - one of them a 2-1 loss to Arsenal in the FA Cup, a rare day when he didn't start.
It's intriguing to look at how Burnley did what they did. Of the 24 teams in the Championship, they ranked a lowly 18th in terms of the amount of possession they enjoyed in games and yet they were four points clear of everybody else at season's end.
In 25 out of the 40 games Barton played, Burnley operated on less than 50% possession. Sometimes a lot less. In a 3-1 win over Fulham, they had 39%, in a 4-1 win against Derby County, they had 40%, in a 2-1 win over Bolton Wanderers and a 3-1 win over Huddersfield Town, they had 42%, in a 1-0 win at Blackburn, they had 43%.
On and on it went. Huge defensive organisation and concentration and ruthless execution at the other end. Burnley kept a clean sheet in 45% of the matches that Barton played. He was massively influential. The fireman with no end of fires to fight - and the player of the year.
Can Barton bounce back?
It's different for him at Rangers. In many of the games they play, they're going to be on the front foot, with more ball and a different landscape to the Burnley team that Barton excelled in.
There are exceptions, of course, and Saturday will surely be one of them. It would be a surprise if Celtic didn't boss possession in their own backyard.
It would also be a surprise if Celtic didn't win the game, but maybe this is the type of match that will suit Barton, more like what he was used to last season. Breaking up attacks instead of having to launch them. Hustling and harrying and leading the resistance as opposed to a creative force.
After all his fighting talk, it's time that Barton stopped his shadow boxing and jumped in the ring and got on with it. The tantalising thing is that, if he does, he'll have Brown eyeballing him from the other corner, a seriously focused player, restored to health and unwilling to take a backward step.
A wit on Twitter said in jest the other day that this was the immovable object versus the irresistible force. We'll just call it Brown versus Barton while sitting back and enjoying the show.