B.and Roddy Forsyth
Today the 428th derby in the Old Firm arch-rivalry will be played out at Ibrox, with another couple following in quick succession. Celtic and Rangers meet again in the Scottish Cup semi-finals at Hampden Park in two weeks and the chances are that the final collision of the season will also be scheduled for April once the Scottish Premiership splits into top and bottom halves.
This afternoon’s match, though, offers Celtic the opportunity to all but annex the league title with a victory, which would mean they post a six-point lead and augment a goal difference tally which is effectively worth an extra point, with only six fixtures to play.
They will be reinforced by the return of Kyogo Furuhashi after several weeks’ absence due to injury, while Rangers must cope without Alfredo Morelos, who returned from international duty for Colombia with muscle damage, without playing in his country’s games.
A draw would unquestionably favor Celtic, but Ange Postecoglou has stated emphatically that such an outcome will not be in his thoughts or that of his players. Indeed, there is no reason why it should be, given that they were six points behind Rangers going into Scottish football’s winter break.
That situation was transformed as Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s team leaked points in draws against Aberdeen and Ross County before losing 3-0 in an almost wholly one-sided derby at Celtic Park in February and then being held 1-1 by Dundee United at Tannadice and 2 -2 at home to Motherwell. During the same period, Celtic’s only slippage was a goalless draw at Hibernian.
As Rangers’ defense of their title sustained periodic damage, a beacon of hope was that they produced bright Europa League performances which dumped Borussia Dortmund and Red Star Belgrade out of a tournament in which the Ibrox side are now the only surviving national champions. That consolation, however, means that Van Bronckhorst’s side now have to negotiate home and away quarter-finals against Braga while Celtic can rest.
All of which adds to the belief that Rangers must take full reward today to maintain any plausible hope of a second successive league title, as part of their 150th anniversary celebrations.
Morelos, who has contributed 18 goals from 42 appearances, will be replaced by Kemar Roofe, whose record is 13 from 35, but who has only scored a single league goal, at Aberdeen, since Dec 1.
Furuhashi last played on Boxing Day, against St Johnstone, and is an unlikely starter, but his presence on the bench will hearten his colleagues and the 700 fans who will try to prevent 50,000 Rangers counterparts from dominating the decibel count completely.
David Turnbull, too, will be in the squad, but the Celtic player who has arguably been most influential in bonding the large influx of newcomers this season is Callum McGregor.
The Celtic captain was picked out for particular praise from Postecoglou as the manager reviewed the transformation effected this season.
“In the beginning, when things weren’t running smoothly, we made sure we had a clear understanding and a clear focus about what was important to us,” Postecoglou said.
“If you start trying to impress on the players the pressures of this club just as they are literally jumping off plans and into the team, there was an opportunity there to lose the group.
“It was more about getting through that period and creating a real resilient group – we weren’t going to make excuses, we understood and embraced the challenge of playing for this club. But at the same time, we knew we had to grow into the season.
“You just have to look at the line-up on our first visit to Ibrox. We had players who were literally transferred down south straight after the game. We knew they were going, but that was the line-up we had to put out that day.
“Cal and the whole group embraced the fact this was not going to be a smooth year. The key for Cal was just to be himself. That’s why I chose him for the position. Great leaders are genuine in being themselves and not trying to be somebody else.
“He has understood that and he has grown into the role. I think that’s why he has won the respect of the group. He has done it his own way with his own personality, but there’s no doubt they know he is competitive and he wants to win.”