Why Celtic's quadruple-treble clinching success could be the most significant weekend of Rangers' season
It may appear to be stretching credulity to ludicrous limits by suggesting Rangers supporters have just experienced one of their most satisfying weekends of the season so far.
How could that possibly be so when it saw their greatest rivals complete a momentous quadruple treble of domestic trophies, a world first in club football, and also equal the all-time record of seven clean sweeps set by Rangers themselves?
Yet as difficult as Celtic’s unprecedented monopoly of silverware is to take for those of a light blue persuasion, there was a bigger picture for them to see in the course of the action which unfolded at Ibrox on Saturday and at Hampden on Sunday.
While Celtic manager Neil Lennon and his players were focused on tying up the final loose end of the coronavirus-hit 2019-20 campaign, Rangers opened up a 16-point lead at the top of the Scottish Premiership table with their 3-1 win over Motherwell.
The manner of the victory recorded by Steven Gerrard’s squad felt significant, coming as it did on the back of their first defeat in all competitions this season when they were eliminated from the League Cup by St Mirren the previous Wednesday.
The scrutiny on how Gerrard’s players would respond was intense, even more so after the concession of a sixth minute goal to Callum Lang which provided Motherwell with the ideal platform to park the defensive equivalent of two double-decker buses in front of goalkeeper Jordan Archer for the rest of the afternoon.
As the clock ticked beyond the 70-minute mark with Rangers still trailing to the first goal they had conceded in the league at Ibrox since March, it was all too easy to believe they were about to suffer the kind of reversal which was so damaging in Gerrard’s previous two seasons at the helm when their title challenges faltered so badly in the second half of the campaign.
But there was something strikingly different about Rangers’ approach to adversity this time. There was no sense of panic in their play as they looked for a way through Motherwell’s 5-5-0 formation, one which Gerrard admitted afterwards he had never encountered before in his career.
Could the absence of supporters at Ibrox have played a part in ensuring there was no anxiety among the Rangers players? Perhaps, although as Motherwell defender Declan Gallagher pointed out, the flip side of that was that the lack of a noisy home crowd was also helpful to the visitors in concentrating on a game plan which looked as if it could pay dividends.
But the most significant factor in Rangers being able to cope with a situation which might have spooked them last season was the fact they now have greater maturity, confidence and quality in their ranks.
That was typified by Kemar Roofe, an assured and intelligent player who is showing why Rangers were prepared to pay £3.5 million to recruit him from Anderlecht in August.
Roofe’s 72nd minute equaliser saw Rangers’ constant probing and pressure finally reap its reward. After Cedric Itten, the £2.7 million capture from St Gallen now also coming to the fore, put Rangers in front it was Roofe who wrapped up the win with his second of the afternoon to take his tally for the season into double figures.
While Rangers have now played three games more than Celtic in the league, having those points on the board unquestionably increases the pressure on the reigning champions whose own inconsistencies this season were again evident in their tumultuous penalty shoot-out triumph over Hearts in the Scottish Cup Final.
On the face of it, Celtic now have the more propitious run of fixtures ahead of the Old Firm showdown at Ibrox on 2 January. While they have home games against Ross County and Dundee United either side of a trip to Hamilton, Rangers have away assignments against St Johnstone and St Mirren sandwiching the Boxing Day visit of Hibs to Ibrox.
But if Rangers, who have just won 10 straight league games for the first time in 13 years, can match or better Celtic’s points haul over the next three rounds of fixtures, they will be in a position to exert greater authority in the title race than they ever managed at any stage of the previous two seasons.
Gerrard, unsurprisingly, is playing down the significance of Rangers’ lead at the top of table as he approaches the halfway stage of the Premiership campaign in Perth on Wednesday evening.
“No, no, no – not at all,” was his response when asked if the 16-point gap provides his team with a psychological edge.
“We're in December. We're still pre-Christmas. Obviously, we'd much rather be where we are in the table, of course. But there are a lot of games in hand. We understand how the situation lies.”
It is a situation where the initiative in pursuit of this league title, one which would be celebrated and savoured by Rangers supporters perhaps more than any other as they crave the 55th in the club’s history and the one which would deny Celtic another slice of history in the form of 10-in-a-row, lies very firmly in the hands of Gerrard and his players.
The evidence presented by their victory against Motherwell suggests it is initiative they will not surrender as easily as they did when it came to the business end of the last two campaigns. If they do go on to see the job through this time around, the weekend when their biggest foes secured the quadruple treble might even be one they can reflect upon with a wry sense of fondness.
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