Ryan Christie, Celtic's five personnel changes and Rangers' year without a league penalty concession
One aspect surrounding Ryan Christie’s last exposure to the derby fray will have escaped the Celtic midfielder’s attention.
A day that came in the festive edition of the fixture a year ago. A grim afternoon for Christie centred on his penalty miss as Rangers ran-out 2-1 winners; the player later handed a retrospective two-game ban for grabbing the groin area of Alfredo Morelos. No-one could have then known the significance of the spot-kick saved by Allan McGregor. It makes Christie the last man to have taken a penalty in such circumstances. No spot-kicks were awarded against Rangers in the 31 Premiership encounters they played across the entire calendar year of 2020, wherein football was shutdown between March and July because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Christie could not have anticipated on the afternoon of December 2019 that it would be 2021 before he again faced up to his club’s ancient adversaries, as he is set to do at Ibrox on Saturday. Or that when he did so, the evolution of the Celtic team would be so extensive set against the side Neil Lennon selected for the clubs’ previous joust. Nothing about the October 17 confrontation won 2-0 by Steven Gerrard’s men – a result that laid the foundations for the 16-point lead they have subsequently established in the title race – has faded from Christie’s memory. Not least how he was forced to watch the game from afar in being required to self-isolate as an adjudged close contact of Stuart Armstrong following his former club team-mate’s positive test for Covid-19 when the pair were on Scotland duty.
“It was frustrating watching it from home the way it panned out the last time,” he said. “There were a few boys that missed out on that game that will be desperate to be involved in this one, and get a taste of it for the first time this season. But we know it will be difficult to come out on top of it.”
The Celtic team that Lennon will pick is likely to feature five personnel changes. Three months ago, he was without Odsonne Edouard and Nir Bitton because of positive Covid-19 cases. Both are likely to start at Ibrox, the Israeli as a replacement for Christopher Jullien following the Frenchman’s knee injury sustained in a nasty bang with the post during the 3-0 victory over Dundee United. A success that was their sixth on the spin, and allowed them to register a fourth clean sheet.
Leigh Griffiths – not fit enough to start the last derby, with Patryk Klimala leading the line – will partner Edouard in attack, in the 4-4-2 formation in which Lennon has configured his team, the set-up based around a midfield diamond. This, in itself, will ensure Celtic break with recent convention. For not since April 2012, when Georgios Samras partnered Anthony Stokes in a 3-2 defeat that delayed Celtic’s coronation as champions for the first of their nine-in-a-row, have the Parkhead side fielded two central strikers at the home of their bitter rivals.
Yet, it is in midfield that Celtic will be an entirely different proposition from the team Rangers cruised to victory against in Glasgow’s east end 11 weeks ago. It is not a stretch to say that, in the space of the month where they have cemented their places in the side, David Turnbull and Ismaila Soro have become arguably its two most integral members, at the apex and base of Celtic central diamond respectively. So much so, there is no consideration given to the possibility that either of these would-be first-time derby starters might be overlooked in order to accommodate more experienced campaigners – as happened when Soro had to give way to captain Scott Brown for the quadruple treble-earning Scottish Cup final triumph only a fortnight ago.
The drive and energy the little Ivorian buzzbomb has injected into a previously stultified side that has been equally reanimated by invention and impetus provided by the technically-gifted Turnbull, has been extraordinary. The £3.5m summer signing from Motherwell boasts seven wins from seven starts in Celtic colours. And four goals in these outings, three in his past three appearances. Soro has five wins from five starts. Consider that both were pitched in by Lennon as desperate measures were sought following a ruinous run of only two wins in 12 games…
The dovetailing of Edouard and Griffiths in attack and the platform given to them by such as Turnbull and Soro – in tandem with Callum McGregor and Christie – has been utterly transformative for Celtic. Lennon’s men are capable of hurting Rangers. The encounter at Ibrox is likely to pivot on how much their opponents can exploit a still fragile-looking backline, in which the so far unimpressive Vasilis Barkas will keep goal behind a back four of Jeremie Frimpong, Kristoffer Ajer, Bitton and Diego Laxalt. Lennon appears to have nursed Celtic back to health, but defeat at Ibrox would send them firmly back on to their sick bed. Yet, Christie refuses to consider that would be terminal in their quest for a record 10th title that has been all-consuming for supporters.
“Obviously when we went through that run, that dip in form, we knew it was only going to take a slight turn, a wee buzz, and we’d be back at it - as long as we kept to what we know, kept working hard. So we’ve done that, we’re out of the way of it, and out the other side of it and now want to kick on. We are in a good run of form, as are they, but at the same time it is a bit of a one-off game. So we have to put everything else aside and come out the better side and take away the three points. [But no], it’s not must-win, we’ve still got plenty of games to go. Still half a season to decide who wins the league.”
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