Four individual duels that could win or lose Saturday's derby for Celtic and Rangers
Debutants could figure heavily in first meeting of the title rivals this season
Jeremie Frimpong v Borna Barisic
It isn’t often you could label a face-off between – what are nominally – two defenders as key to attacking impetus in an encounter. Yet, the advanced positions Frimpong, a right wing-back, and Barisic, a left-back, take up, means the push-and-pull between the pair will have a real bearing on which of the combatants on Saturday can get on the front foot. Both are essentially wingers, who must cover entire flanks. Barisic’s delivery from wide areas is profoundly important to the creative ambitions of Steven Gerrard’s men. Hence the fact the Croatian has six assists in all competitions this season. Similarly, with Frimpong’s fleet-footed burrowing up pitch, though the Dutch teenager’s unreliable final ball means he has been the creator for only two Celtic goals in this campaign. The duo also have one goal apiece. Neither is particularly au fait with the derby crucible, or made notable impacts in the fixture. Barisic has been on the losing side in two of his three such outings, while Frimpong’s record reads one win and one defeat. The Celtic player is also the last from the club to be sent-off against Rangers, the fate befalling him in the edgy League Cup final victory for Neil Lennon’s men last December. The 19-year-old, then, has yet to earn his spurs in an arena that can define careers with Scotland’s two big beasts.
Shane Duffy v Alfredo Morelos
Will this be the derby, finally, that Morelos makes the Celtic support pay for all those Youtube gloatfests over the Rangers striker’s calamitious misses across 12 appearances against the Scottish champions? It seems inconceivable that the Colombian won’t at one point break his duck against his club’s bitterest foes. Yet, on his debut, boyhood Celtic supporter Shane Duffy will hardly be in the mood to let his dream of featuring in the legendary confrontation be remembered for the wrong reasons. The on-loan Brighton centre-back is now firmly in the groove following an iffy start to his time with Neil Lennon’s men, apart from his immense aerial prowess delivering two goals. The Republic of Ireland captain has been integral to Celtic racking up four consecutive clean-sheets before the international break, and his uncompromising style means he will relish the almighty scrap with which Morelos will seek to unsettle him. The forward won’t want that to extend the eye-catching numbers he has posted in the derby. Those come in the form of five yellow cards and two reds – Morelos given the ultimate sanction at the end of the Ibrox’s men 2-1 victory in Glasgow’s east end 10 months ago, the Scottish powerhouses most recent face-off. The last game of 2019, Morelos has netted in only four games across the entirety of 2020, and will come into the encounter having hot-footed it from South America, where he made two substitute appearances for his country in World Cup qualifiers.
Callum McGregor v Ryan Jack
The two Scotland internationals might not spend that much of Saturday’s skirmish getting as up close and personal as they have been in the nation’s colours for the past week or so. Their roles, though, ensure the midfielders will be judged on how they function compared with each other. Both will be tasked with building play from the back, and their recycling and ability to offer a metronomic presence at their team’s core will go some way to determining which of the teams takes a grip on proceedings. Jack will be the more deep-lying of the two, his chief duties screening the defence and delivering the ball forward. With Scott Brown alongside him, McGregor will be expected to perform both as a no.8 and no.6, knitting the play in the final third. The threat offered by the Celtic vice-captain, an old hand in these contests, is reflected in his four-goal haul in them. Not to say that Jack cannot conjure up such a moment – it was his goal in December 2018 that allowed Rangers to bring to an end a 12-game run without victory over their ancient adversaries.
Albian Ajeti v Leon Balogun
The expected absence of Odsonne Edouard for Celtic – the result of the 22-year-old being required to quarantine in his homeland for the past week after he tested positive for Covid-19 on international duty for the France under-21s – will place a huge burden on the shoulders of Albian Ajeti. The Swiss international is expected to have sufficiently recovered from a hamstring strain to lead the line, with probable support from former Basel team-mate Mohamed Elyounoussi. The £4.5m signing from West Ham hit the ground running with five goals in six league games, at a strike rate of one goal every 47.4 minutes, before succumbing to injury. A penalty box predator, his speed of movement and thought is why Steven Gerrard is likely to select pacy and powerful Nigerian international Leon Balogun over slower Swedish rival Filip Helander to partner Conor Goldson in the Ibrox backline. The early months in Scotland for the 32-year-old, whose former clubs included Wigan, Brighton, and Mainz 05, Fortuna Dusseldorf and Werder Bremen, have also been interrupted by a couple of muscle injuries, but he has been impressively assured in his appearances. The absence of supporters will make this joust between the two derby debutants one wherein their self-motivation – in terms of concentration and application – will be tested to the maximum.