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All eyes will be on Old Firm battles on and off the pitch

By Julian Taylor

The spectacle of an ancient rival casually directing operations is invariably an unpalatable scenario to experience. However, for Rangers, there was something so profound, so utterly humiliating about a sequence of defeats to Celtic last spring that prompted a radical, courageous rethink. The kind where fundamental change was non-negotiable.

For who knew, back then, that Steven Gerrard was being courted by a beleaguered Ibrox board.

And in an intriguing time of mutual symmetry, Rangers' fresh ambition is unfolding at the behest of one man, whose famed obsessive nature could be the making of a new era.

It's all rather fascinating to observe - not least for Brendan Rodgers and an expanded audience.

What has appeared to be a small subtext of friction between Gerrard and Rodgers since 2014, when Liverpool went so close to claiming the Premier League title, is sure, given time, to be amplified in the searing bedlam that is Old Firm management.

Football's impressive number of body language experts will be interested observers on September 2, the first Old Firm clash of the season.

Only time will tell whether Gerrard has got what it takes in management generally, irrespective of this fascinating marriage with Rangers.

But the 38-year-old is in unquestionably urgent mood and so far has overcome real obstacles in tricky circumstances. Ibrox is not a seat of learning when results have to be extracted, Celtic are to be chased down and a Europa League group stage is to be reached.

The Liverpool icon has been sufficiently ruthless to apply the surgery necessary to both radicalise a collective mindset and jettison those lacking quality.

That much was glaringly apparent across last season's Glasgow derby humiliations. Now Scottish football is viewing the arc of Rangers in revival, with the increased fibre instilled by Gerrard, his assistant Gary McAllister and fitness coach Jordan Milsom. Simply, the absolute gutting of both the playing staff and mentality was paramount.

Just like Rodgers, it's all about having winners with aggressive character.

Even at this embryonic stage, Gerrard's recruitment appears promising. In midfield, Scott Arfield's attacking instincts will be vital, and loanee Lassana Coulibaly has established a physical presence the Light Blues have sorely lacked. The central defensive pairing of Connor Goldson and Croat Nikola Katic is already eradicating a glaring soft centre. Jermain Defoe or Kyle Lafferty could arrive too but, either way, Rangers need further attacking options to help Alfredo Morelos.

Thursday night's Europa League second qualifying round second leg against NK Osijek - an outfit Gerrard believes will win this season's Croatian title, incidentally - was indicative of why Rangers have taken a calculated bolt on this exciting appointment.

A sell-out Ibrox, a revived sense of optimism among the supporters orchestrated by a man both passionate and ruthless to shoulder a myriad of responsibilities. An evening for the Light Blues, shot with the sort of electricity not experienced for a decade.

Essentially, a portrait a world away from Gerrard's dismal, cowardly predecessors, Graeme Murty and Pedro Caixinha. And if the new boss can establish domestic and European inroads while nurturing virtually an entirely new squad and challenging Celtic in the autumn, then Rangers will be in a good place. It still might not be enough.

Rodgers, meanwhile, has no such seismic overhaul to be concerned with, given the immediate, fabulous legacy of back-to-back trebles. What he, like any good manager, knows is that building from a position of strength remains crucial.

The Carnlough native was certainly blindsided by the appointment of his former trusted Liverpool lieutenant across the city, and it is beyond embarrassing that Celtic have lacked a sustained challenge for so long.

Therefore, personnel changes need not be weighty. Rodgers has already made one big statement with the signing of Odsonne Edouard for a club record £9m, and the powerful Frenchman will guarantee plenty of goals having already enjoyed a taste of Parkhead life on loan last term.

The £7m sale of Stuart Armstrong to Southampton is disappointing from the viewpoint of Celtic losing the Scotland international's creativity.

Yet John McGinn, Hibernian's energetic star midfielder, is Parkhead-bound, once the usual shadow boxing has subsided, and is expected to become the natural successor to Scott Brown.

Other than perhaps another central defensive addition, this window shouldn't concern Rodgers much, but supplying a new contract to James Forrest and reinvigorating Scott Sinclair must be priorities.

Europe remains vexing for Celtic and Rodgers. For all the disparity in resources, Celtic's reputation took a severe chastening last season against Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich and, presently, the Europa League is more appealing in terms of possible progress.

Mentally, the purported aggressive Rangers threat will test Celtic. Although the Premiership champions dropped needless points compared to the Invincibles of 2016/17, the Hoops' key men are ingrained with a winning mentality.

Captain Brown, Tom Rogic, Moussa Dembele and Leigh Griffiths can be relied upon to come up with big game answers.

Rodgers is smart enough to cope with all this noise - Aberdeen will remain there or thereabouts too - and both he and Gerrard are renowned for their intolerance of complacency.

That, plus any lurking enmity, is quite something to justify increased interest in the Scottish game this season. It's on.

Belfast Telegraph

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