Celtic v Rangers: Top-class Brendan Rodgers has brought the Hoops up to his level
It's the first time the sides have met in four years
The first Old Firm derby between Celtic and Rangers at Celtic Park is underway.
Brendan Rodgers has brought the Hoops up to his level
Moments after being unveiled at Celtic Park earlier this summer, Brendan Rodgers was accorded an unquestioning, devoted welcome by thousands. The Scottish champions had their new leader.
Here was the man, the character, to put the pizazz back into Parkhead. Down from the slopes of the Antrim Glens, Rodgers realised that he needed the demands, the pressure, all the hopes and dreams. Such is the intense responsibility of managing Celtic.
If the Ulsterman can guide his new Bhoys to victory over Rangers today, it clearly represents more than simply three points in another SPFL week.
The psychological hurt inflicted upon the Ibrox outfit could be irretrievable over the course of the season. It is very likely that, even at this early stage, Celtic will already be in a position to retain their title.
The Hoops can go four points clear at the top of the Premiership with a game in hand - and the signs, albeit small, are that Rangers are insufficiently equipped to halt the recent, powerful performances by Rodgers' side.
What a difference the correct appointment makes. Rodgers' predecessor, Ronny Deila, may have patented a 'Ronny Roar' but the Norwegian's presence was, with respect, that of a church mouse compared to ex-Liverpool boss Rodgers.
Managing either Celtic or Rangers requires a flinty operator. Both Rodgers and his counterpart, Mark Warburton, can certainly be described as such. Decent men - the pair are friends to a point from working together in the past at Watford - but they are in Glasgow on crucial business.
While Rodgers' reign got off to the worst possible start with a shocker in a Champions League qualifier against unknowns Lincoln Red Imps in Gibraltar, it is a measure of his man-management that Celtic recovered instantly - and haven't looked back.
Three successive league wins plus qualification for the Champions League group stages highlight the confidence searing through the collective thought process.
A few weeks ago, there was a fascinating insight into this new Rodgers template when Celtic travelled to Tynecastle. A lightning combination between Leigh Griffiths and debutant Scott Sinclair yielded a winning goal out of nothing.
It was the kind of football the Celtic following demand, as directed by their new leader. From Rangers' point of view, the lack of pace in defensive areas must be a concern, so Rangers chief Warburton may be tempted by an ultra-cautious approach in the early stages.
New Celt Moussa Dembele, bought from Fulham with potential in mind, is already off the scoring mark, and Sinclair - a former Rodgers prodigy at Swansea City - seems reborn. New Ranger Joe Garner has been brought to Ibrox with the promise of goals, but if selected, he will find it is a massive elevation from Preston North End, while Rodgers can effortlessly indulge £4m on England cap Sinclair.
Not that Rangers are incapable of ingenuity in terms of personnel. There is no doubting the quality of Joey Barton, Niko Kranjcar and Philippe Senderos, all of whom have mixed it at the highest echelons of the game. However, with all of them in their 30s, are they riding the down escalator?
Even the slightest loss of pace will be brutally exposed.
Barton has, by his standards, underwhelmed. He hasn't flopped, but neat trimmings around the pitch without damaging opponents remain a disappointment.
There is no question of the spiky Scouser's ability - in fact, it is sometimes overlooked amid the deluge of his own mischief-making off the field - but the Rangers support, seemingly conditioned to expect the worst, need him.
How Barton performs in the midfield drama against Celtic captain Scott Brown will be central to Warburton's hopes of emerging with at least a point. Brown has bleak memories of being given an absolute chasing in last season's Scottish Cup semi-final by younger upstarts Andy Halliday and Jason Holt.
Barton lacks a bit of pace, but is a fine reader of the game. If he is to nullify Brown's promptings he will need to be constantly one step ahead.
Warburton will be relieved Barton has kept his counsel over the course of the week. After a protracted transfer, this is now the arena to deliver a major statement, with everyone in Light Blue looking to him.
Rangers were outstanding during that Hampden semi-final, and the setback to Celtic was felt so severely it led to the chain of events which now sees Rodgers at the helm.
Scottish football may have its critics, but Old Firm theatre is exactly why players like Barton and Sinclair have arrived. The sheer mayhem of this clash has disturbed imported stars such as Terry Butcher, Mark Hateley and Paolo di Canio over the years, so Barton is sure to feel affected.
Kenny Miller, at 36, remains a danger and has a good record at Celtic Park. And whether Griffiths wins a fitness battle or is replaced by Dembele, there should be goals.
Nevertheless, Rodgers has got Celtic in a fairly irrepressible place at the right time. It's fair to assume everyone at Parkhead is expecting to win, leaving Gers to increasingly fine-tune with their season already arguably slipping away.
Classic Old Firm matches of the past
RANGERS 3 CELTIC 2 — May 5, 1973: The Centenary Scottish Cup Final of 1973 between Rangers and Celtic had it all: excitement, drama and an unlikely hero. More than 122,000 crammed into Hampden Park to see Celtic take the lead through Kenny Dalglish. Derek Parlane levelled and seconds into the second half Alfie Conn outstripped the Hoops defence to make it 2-1 for the Ibrox side. Celtic equalised with a George Connelly penalty but Gers defender Tom Forsyth popped up to knock in the winner.
CELTIC 4 RANGERS 2 — May 21, 1979: Celtic dramatically won the league title in their last game of the season against their city rivals, despite going a goal down and having a man sent off. Rangers, with games in hand, also had title aspirations which looked positive when Alex MacDonald gave them an early lead. The home side were reduced to 10 men when Johnny Doyle was dismissed but goals from Roy Aitken and George McCluskey put Celtic ahead before Bobby Russell equalised. However, Ibrox defender Colin Jackson inadvertently headed the ball into his own net and Murdo MacLeod added a spectacular fourth.
RANGERS 4 CELTIC 4 — March 22, 1986: The rain lashed down but it could not dampen the fireworks which started when the visitors took a two-goal lead through Mo Johnstone and Brian McClair. Hoops’ defender Willie McStay was sent off after half-an-hour before Cammy Fraser made it 2-1. Tommy Burns scored Celtic’s third but three goals in an incredible 11-minute spell from Ally McCoist, Robert Fleck and Fraser again had the Light Blues ahead. However, Murdo MacLeod levelled with a long-range drive for a draw.
CELTIC 6 RANGERS 2 — August 27, 2000: Martin O’Neill’s first Old Firm game as Celtic boss could not have gone any better for the Ulsterman as the Hoops crushed Rangers at Parkhead. The home side were ahead after less than a minute through Chris Sutton, with Stiliyan Petrov and Paul Lambert making it 3-0 after only 11 minutes. Claudio Reyna pulled a goal back just before the break but early in the second half Henrik Larsson made it 4-1. Gers striker Billy Dodds converted a penalty to reduce the leeway but there was to be no comeback. Larsson, with a header, made it 5-2 and on the final whistle Sutton sealed his brace with a tap-in.
CELTIC 2 RANGERS 3 — May 4, 2002: One of the great Old Firm Scottish Cup Finals ended in victory for Rangers thanks to a last-minute strike by Peter Lovenkrands. The Danish forward had already cancelled out John Hartson’s 19th-minute headed opener before a wonderful Barry Ferguson free-kick levelled up Bobo Balde’s close-range header. With the game heading for extra-time, Lovenkrands got his head on a Neil McCann cross to win the trophy.