The crucial choices facing Steven Gerrard as Rangers bid to increase lead over Celtic in title race to 19 points
Even a 16-point lead at the top of the table and being on a run of 13 consecutive Premiership victories can’t provide Steven Gerrard with any room to relax as he decides on his starting eleven for Saturday’s Old Firm showdown at Ibrox.
Regardless of the circumstances, this is a fixture which has always placed the most intense scrutiny on the personnel choices made by the managers involved.
Rangers may be in a confident and commanding position in the title race going into 2021 but that doesn’t make it any easier for Gerrard as he picks his team.
“I’ve got tough decisions to make at the weekend,” admits Gerrard. “But I’m not the first Rangers manager to have tough decisions going into an Old Firm match.
“Yes, I’ve got choices, but I’ve had a selection dilemma since the first game of the season.
“We’ve got good players all fighting for positions. There are good players not getting on the pitch who have been doing well.
“That’s the squad you need at Rangers. My job is to pick the team. I don’t pick it on sentiment, I pick it on players I think will get the job done.”
So where are the areas where Gerrard has the biggest calls to make? Not in the goalkeeping position, that’s for sure.
While Jon McLaughlin has made a valuable contribution already this season, keeping seven of the 17 clean sheets Rangers have recorded in their unbeaten Premiership campaign so far, Allan McGregor is still the man for the big occasion as far as Gerrard is concerned.
The 38-year-old played in his 400th game for Rangers as they defeated St Mirren 2-0 in Paisley on Wednesday and while he had a couple of shaky moments, he can expect to be charged with keeping Celtic out this weekend.
“Allan has been in great form,” said Gerrard. “The clean sheet record this season has been really strong.
“We have defended really well against St Mirren, we were much better organised than the last time we played them in the Betfred Cup.
“So, good for Allan on keeping a clean sheet on his 400th appearance. Let’s hope he can keep another one on his 401st.”
Gerrard’s back four has only one question mark surrounding it. Three of its components are nailed-on starters - right-back James Tavernier and central defender Connor Goldson have been involved in every game of the season so far, while Borna Barisic firmly remains the first choice at left-back.
The choice of a partner for Goldson at the heart of the defence looks like the only point of debate. Filip Helander filled the role when Rangers won 2-0 at Celtic Park in October and was untroubled on a day which saw the hosts start with Patryk Klimala up front.
But with Celtic now deploying a front two of Odsonne Edouard, who was absent in October, and Leigh Griffiths it may prompt Gerrard to replace Helander with the greater pace of Leon Balogun this time.
In midfield, Gerrard’s options have been reduced by the ankle injury sustained by Scott Arfield against Hibs last Saturday and which looks set to sideline the Canadian international for the next few weeks.
With Ryan Jack still missing as he battles the knee problem which has kept him out for the last six weeks, the defensive solidity Rangers look for in their three-man midfield is most likely to be provided by Glen Kamara and Steven Davis.
Bongani Zungu can also offer physicality and intelligent game-management in a holding role but the South African will probably have to settle for a place on the bench.
Greater flair and attacking zest will come from Joe Aribo, the Nigerian international recapturing his optimum form in recent weeks after injury and illness issues.
“I made it quite clear that it was important we got someone in the door in the midfield area before the last transfer window shut,” said Gerrard.
“Getting Bongani up to speed was the priority because over the course of the season, with the schedule we have, we were always going to get a knock or two.
“Ryan Jack being out for the amount of time he has has been a real disappointment for me.
“Scott Arfield’s absence is a bit of bad luck from a challenge he had against Hibs. So it does make us slightly light in that area.
“But having Bongani there is a big help. Joe Aribo getting back up to speed and back to form as quick as he has is a real positive.
“I thought both him and Glen Kamara were superb against St Mirren. Steven Davis, aside from one or two moments early on, again showed why he is so important to us as well.”
For his attacking trident, Gerrard has a dilemma over in-form Ianis Hagi who has started the last three games and is a consistently reliable creator of chances. But the Romanian playmaker could be back among the subs on Saturday.
In-form Kemar Roofe is likely to line up on the right with Alfredo Morelos, back on the goal trail and seeking to break his duck in Old Firm games at the 14th attempt, in the central role. Ryan Kent was left out of the starting eleven against St Mirren on Wednesday but while the former Liverpool winger hasn’t been at his best in an attacking sense in recent weeks, he has a track record of performing effectively against Celtic and it would be a major surprise if Gerrard omitted him for this one.
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