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Caixinha has steel Rangers need

By Julian Taylor

The shadow may be rapidly expanding but the idea of a meaningless Old Firm fixture remains, as always, worthless currency.

Celtic, already crowned Scottish champions for the sixth successive season - so wonderfully engineered under Brendan Rodgers - travel to Ibrox today feeling imperious. They have answered every domestic question put to them in the finest fashion.

The Parkhead outfit are 90 minutes away from a domestic treble in Ulsterman Rodgers' maiden campaign. With an astonishing 33-point gap separating Celtic from a lacklustre Rangers, it seems inevitable the Hoops' unbeaten run will be consolidated.

The rippling waves of distance between the clubs were held up in full view again last weekend, when Celtic cruised to what mainly amounted to a public, passionate training session at Hampden Park.

A rudimentary 2-0 Scottish Cup semi-final victory by Rodgers' men came as no surprise - yet the lack of fundamental willpower from a Rangers perspective clearly alarmed their new boss Pedro Caixinha.

And if there is even a kernel of truth in whispers of alleged dissent at Ibrox, we can also see a contrast in how two sets of players regard their downtime.

It is, of course, not the fault of Caixinha that the Europa League qualifiers begin on June 29, leaving as little as nine days' holiday for his Gers squad to ruminate over this dismal season as well as replenish for the undoubted rigours ahead.

Caixinha is aware of possible dissenters who feel aggrieved at a five-week pre-season schedule and is certain to act when the time is right.

The Portuguese coach is, additionally, largely blameless in view of inheriting a squad with, frankly, both a losing and rudderless mentality; their weakness to adapt to changing game circumstances mirroring the attitude of his predecessor, Mark Warburton.

Caixinha speaks at impressive length about his tactical visions, but without the calibre of player to execute them then Rangers are always going to struggle, increasingly so against a team as clinically superior as Celtic have proved to be.

There may, hence, be a slight change of approach at Ibrox with the emphasis on technique to be supplanted by a call to players' basic sense of pride. "Defending the colours", as Caixinha put it on Thursday.

Rangers lacked muscle and desire during last Sunday's Hampden slump. Even the Celtic players appeared pleasantly surprised by the dearth of combat for most of the match.

Caixinha, who admits to the odd sleepless night since arriving in Glasgow, has already been lampooned by sections of the Scottish media. It is unfair given he has only overseen six games, including that sole defeat to Celtic.

Irrespective of today's result, investment at Ibrox - indeed, lots of it - is essentially the only thing to potentially halt the Rodgers' juggernaut. While this is Light Blue coloured wishful thinking, the gulf can be reduced, however, as Caixinha concedes.

As Celtic anticipate crucial, glamorous Champions League qualifiers in July, Rangers must use their imagination and expand; changing a recruitment policy of humdrum mediocrities from the likes of Wigan Athletic and Accrington Stanley might help.

Somehow, Caixinha must extort more from the bland collective he has inherited - which is especially challenging considering a slender summer transfer budget. Reading between the lines of the manager's deliberate, focused demeanour, Rob Kiernan, Joe Garner, Harry Forrester, Michael O'Halloran, Martyn Waghorn and perhaps even Lee Wallace and Andy Halliday may feel their Ibrox shelf life expiring.

Celtic's ambitions are, unsurprisingly, bigger and wider. For all that Rodgers has stylised the team this season, maybe it will take the first treble since 2001 to fully reflect his refined signature.

The quality of the attacking football showcased by Scott Sinclair, Moussa Dembele, Stuart Armstrong and, occasionally, much-improved Callum McGregor and Patrick Roberts, deserves complete reward, with only Aberdeen in next month's Scottish Cup final standing in the way.

Carnlough man Rodgers - in contrast to the goings-on across the city - suggested that his only current issue is persuading his men to take time off. Such is the addictive, intoxicating nature of winning.

On the other hand, if Rangers produce another dull, indifferent display then expect their supporters - not traditionally noted for a patient nature - to unleash their frustrations on those who have still to land a significant blow on the Bhoys.

To add pep to the usual Glasgow derby substance, the availability of Rodgers' on-field lieutenant, Scott Brown, at Ibrox comes with controversy.

Brown's red card from Celtic's recent draw at Ross County was surprisingly downgraded to a yellow by the SFA, meaning he will play. The Celtic captain's scything of Liam Boyce was poor and reminded us of the hot-headed inclinations which have always been part of his make-up.

Still, if the Cup game is any indication, Brown will relish another chance of midfield control and it's questionable whether Rangers can meet that desire.

The unfortunate hamstring injury to Dembele presents a great opportunity for Leigh Griffiths to shine again. Frenchman Dembele may possibly be fit for the Cup final or certainly those Champions League qualifiers - now Griffiths can give Rodgers another reminder of his worth.

The Scotland striker remains dangerous, delivering 14 goals, and exhibited some lovely touches in the semi-final. Looking ahead, an established Dembele-Griffiths partnership must tempt Rodgers.

The Celtic chief, desperately seeking to extend this incredible 33-match unbeaten Premiership sequence, knows he is "on the brink of history". Avoiding an Ibrox defeat at the very least takes him another step closer to that objective.

Embattled Rangers, limited as they are, cannot confuse respect with capitulation again. For they now have a manager inclined to ensure stark consequences for those choosing the line of least resistance.

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