Why defeat at Celtic Park could spell disaster for Rangers even this early in the campaign
Saturday sees the first Old Firm game of the season. Celtic will be without three or four players due to Covid-19, but is this a greater test of their rivals? Craig Fowler explains...
Since Steven Gerrard became Rangers manager the two sides have faced each other seven times. Celtic have won four; Rangers three. This in itself is a positive for a club who were frequently hammered prior to Gerrard’s arrival, but there is even reason for hope in some of those defeats.
Rangers were the better side in the 2019 Betfred Cup final, they just couldn’t find a way past Fraser Forster in legendary form. In the 2-1 loss at Celtic Park, the visitors played the majority with ten men after Alfredo Morelos’ red card, yet still came close to claiming a draw after matching their rivals despite the disadvantage. In head-to-head instances Gerrard does seem to have the upper hand on Neil Lennon, even if the results don’t yet reflect that.
Two disappointments both in terms of result and performance came in the first derby in each of the last two seasons, a sequence that the visitors will be going all out to stop this weekend. Gerrard’s initial taste of the Old Firm frenzy came in the 1-0 loss at Celtic Park, where unnecessarily negative tactics contributed to a 90-minute battering. The 2-0 defeat at Ibrox last season was equally tough to stomach for the blue half of Glasgow as they suffered through a naive performance where possession failed to lead to penetration against an opponent who played the white-hot atmosphere with poise and confidence often found in reigning champions.
Though very early in the campaign, it still feels like a seminal moment for Gerrard and Rangers’ chances of stopping ten-in-a-row. That last sentence may seem hyperbolic. Most Old Firm clashes are hyped up in such a do-or-die fashion.
But what will it say if they can’t get a result against Celtic in these circumstances? A draw wouldn’t be a disaster and, depending on how the match plays out, might even be celebrated. But to lose against a Celtic side who don’t have the typical advantage of 59,000 supporters screaming them on, who won’t have Ryan Christie, Nir Bitton, Hatem Elhamed, James Forrest and (possibly) Odsonne Edouard due to a combination of injury and Covid-19, could Rangers rebound from such an emotional blow to end up on top of the pile? With Celtic holding a game in hand, it could well give them a five-point advantage. The Light Blues have rarely shown the mental toughness required to claw back such deficits in a league with few banana skins for the title holders.
A win on Saturday would represent a significant psychological advantage for a Celtic team who have yet to hit their stride. They look fallible, but we know this core of players can play much better. It’s possible Edouard, Forrest, Christie, Kristoffer Ajer, to name but a few, will continue to underwhelm this season, but there’s overwhelming evidence to suggest the contrary.
There’s also the possibility Celtic’s sluggishness has been caused by the uncertainty of the transfer window. Now that it’s closed, those minds can be refocused. And what better way to do that than a crucial derby win? Rangers can’t afford to allow that to happen.
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