'Not totally through woods yet' - New Celtic atmosphere challenge and Alfredo Morelos for Steven Gerrard
Unique. Different. Strange. Just when Rangers were encouraged to believe they had finally got to grips with the Celtic Park atmosphere, they will encounter something completely different in the first Old Firm clash of this season.
Steven Gerrard knows his side had not earned the right to swagger across to the home of their rivals on account of one win in the east end of Glasgow at the tail-end of last year. After all, as much as it was enormously satisfying, it was also overdue.
The 2-1 victory was Rangers’ first at Celtic Park in nine years – of course, four of those years were spent languishing in the lower leagues. While it was comforting to know they had overcome this particular hurdle - it had become an irritation for Gerrard himself, since Rangers had been beaten narrowly in both previous trips under him – there was frustration when the season was suspended on the eve of the third Old Firm league fixture at Ibrox.
The subsequent curtailing of the campaign amid significant controversy meant Rangers were denied the chance to try and repeat the feat at Parkhead post-split. This weekend represents a belated opportunity, but the circumstances could not be more different. It is near the start of a new season and the famous Old Firm atmosphere will be reduced to mere shrieks from players and coaches due to the present bar on supporters.
‘Nobody wants an empty stadium’
“It will be unique, different and strange,” said Steven Gerrard. “I don’t think anyone wants to take part in an Old Firm, or watch an Old Firm, with an empty stadium. That’s not what the buzz of an Old Firm is all about. But it is what is. We all have to get on with it.
“It won’t really affect the outcome of the game because both teams will be emptying everything they’ve got to try and get their team the right result. We’re no different.”
If not affecting matters on the pitch, the absence of a crowd will likely have an impact in other areas, including the behaviour of the managers themselves. Should Rangers gain the victory they hope to achieve, will a pumped-up Gerrard react by shouting into the nearest television camera, as he did after the win on 29 December? That exhilarated reaction was surely inspired by the presence of a partisan, capacity crowd, many of whom had been baiting Gerrard and his players. It is a response one cannot imagine he – or, for that matter, Neil Lennon – being able to summon in a near-empty stadium.
A big reason for coming to Scotland
“I’d much prefer there to be a full house and an atmosphere,” said Gerrard. “It’s a big part of why I wanted to come up to Scotland - to experience the atmospheres and the challenges of both Old Firm capacity crowds. We produced there last year but it was the first time we had done so for ten years, so it is a really tough fixture and it is a tough place to go. Celtic are in good form – I think domestically that was the last time they lost. We have to be at our best to get the right result here, there’s no two ways about it.”
Alfredo Morelos could just as easily start a fight in an empty stadium as he could an empty room, so the absence of supporters might not have any bearing on how he plays the game.
Last December’s victory was a watershed moment for Morelos as well as Rangers, since it stands as the last time he received a red card. The striker was sent off – for the eighth time in his Ibrox career – after being given a second yellow card for diving in injury-time. Gerrard confirmed Morelos was back in the country after second-half appearances for Colombia in Bogota, during the 3-0 win against Venezuela, and Santiago, where his presence off the bench helped secure a 2-2 comeback draw against Chile.
The Buffalo’s bill
Two substitute appearances should not unduly affect a player who has looked a lot fitter already this season. However, Gerrard is conscious of the distance he has covered in the air and while happy to report the striker had arrived back on Thursday – and not, as some had anticipated, on the eve of the game – he still planned to assess the player’s physical and mental condition. “We will also have a chat with him and see how he feels and then we will decide what we want to do for tomorrow’s game,” he said.
“His discipline of course has improved – but I say that with caution on the eve of an Old Firm,” added Gerrard. “He needs to continue that from now to the end of the season.”
Gerrard is aware Morelos might not be at Ibrox “to the end of the season”. Indeed, he might not be at Rangers for much longer than the near future following reports of a bid from a club in Qatar, where the transfer window remains open. The manager confirmed the game is “too early” for Joe Aribo and Kemar Roofe, who are recovering from injury. New signing Bongani Zungu is also still in quarantine. Morelos’ prompt and safe return from South America is therefore a cause for relief.
“It was a thing I had to manage from day to day because I didn’t know myself whether there was going to be a bid for him or whether he was going to be sold,” explained Gerrard.
“How long he is going to be here for? I don’t know. There are still certain windows open. I don’t think we are totally through the woods just yet. But from a selfish point of view, I want as many good players available to me from now ‘til the end of the season as I can because it will give me a better chance of being successful. Selfishly, I am happy.”
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