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Celtic sure to show Caixinha what he is in for

Celtic v Rangers, Ladbrokes Scottish Premiership: Celtic Park, Sunday, 12noon

By Julian Taylor

Incredible, rare things can happen in football. Those were the sentiments of Ivan Rakitic in the aftermath of Barcelona's stunning comeback against Paris Saint Germain in the Champions League on Wednesday.

The Spanish giants' flamboyance is light-years from the grim industry of a Glasgow derby. That sense of taut theatre at Celtic Park tomorrow will be fascinating as ever, but this latest Old Firm meeting appears brutally mis-shapen.

A Rangers victory would probably be regarded with disbelief by the embattled Ibrox players who look well short of the material required for ending Celtic's superb unbeaten league run this season.

Clichés regarding the unpredictability of derby games generally apply to Old Firm contests - yet anything other than a win for Celtic these days would be rare indeed.

Both teams are in the midst of sharpened, contrasting fortunes. The story of Celtic's domestic campaign? A high-speed express, too direct and powerful for the rest. A 27-point Premiership lead attests to the ruthlessness and conviction of Brendan Rodgers' side, who show absolutely no complacency in their treble quest.

This is essentially a freakish season for Celtic, which is not to take anything away from a litany of sublime performances with a set of players who are either on fire, such as Scott Sinclair and Moussa Dembele, or have been reborn, like James Forrest, under the Ulsterman.

Statistically speaking, it is extremely unlikely the Scottish champions will ever enjoy such a runaway campaign again. And the Hoops' dominance is truly helping enhance Rodgers' reputation as a leader.

Buying the right players within reasonable budgets is a skill in itself. Restoring the zest of existing players you inherit is another, occasionally overlooked, skill. This is where Rodgers has particularly excelled this term while the likes of Stuart Armstrong and Callum McGregor are also unrecognisable from the isolated figures of Ronny Deila's underwhelming regime.

They are just two of many who are capable of inflicting serious damage on Rangers tomorrow for the second time. The 5-1 rout in September over their rivals illustrated the chasm between the sides, as the Light Blues continue to lurch.

With a new head coach to replace feeble and tactically naive Mark Warburton soon to be installed - likely to be unknown Portuguese, Pedro Caixinha, next week - the current vacuum at Ibrox leaves a desperate feeling of a Celtic Park damage limitation exercise. Graeme Murty, the Under-20 coach, has been reluctantly shoehorned into temporary charge, as Rangers fans brace themselves for a taxing afternoon.

Is there scope for the Light Blues to gain something? Anything? Other teams have had fleeting moments of possibility against the Bhoys this season, only to remember that a game lasts for 90 minutes.

St Mirren were very impressive for an hour at Parkhead last Sunday in the Scottish Cup quarter-final, as were St Johnstone on league business in January. Motherwell aggressively took the game to the Hoops in an enthralling clash back in December. Such episodes are, though, mere crumbs of encouragement when discussing a squad which has dropped only two points all season.

Meanwhile, there are left-field appointments and then there is Caixinha. Wouldn't you love to know Rodgers' private thoughts on the arrival of this latest adversary? Murty wryly noted yesterday: "Everyone in Glasgow has Googled Pedro Caixinha."

Caixinha, 46, is poised to arrive as part of the current vogue of troubleshooting Portuguese coaches, such as Marco Silva at Hull City and Carlos Carvalhal at Sheffield Wednesday. If the adventurous Portuguese fancies a trial then he's certainly about to experience one.

As a club in predicament, Rangers must make a major statement. They need to nail this appointment otherwise there is real danger of being left behind, perhaps indefinitely, by Celtic as long as Rodgers remains in place.

It would have been the easier option to source a manager already working in Scotland, such as Aberdeen's Derek McInnes or even Tommy Wright at St Johnstone. But there is recognition from the Ibrox board that alternative freshness is crucial, with a coach happy to work alongside a Director of Football, a post the club also has to fill.

Jet-skiing, all-action man Caixinha seems to fit this remit at least; however, his career to date has been marked by inconspicuous flights of fancy.

While assistant coach at places such as Sporting Lisbon and Panathinaikos suggests comfort in a big club environment, everything else points to a real gamble at this stage. On balance, it is one worth taking as clearly Caixinha - who will take a pay cut from current club Al Gharafa in Qatar - is hungry to make a name for himself on the British football stage.

Coming from Qatar after a successful couple of years in Mexico with Santos Laguna doesn't suggest a would-be Rangers revolutionary and his Scottish switch has caused some surprise in Portugal.

Nevertheless, the Ibrox board cannot be accused of lacking imagination in their search for a new coach or failing to appreciate the gravity of this malaise.

Caixinha needs to add steely resolve immediately and, if successful, Rangers could partly salvage a disintegrating season. A Cup final and a Europa League place would be good achievements after Warburton's failed 'project'.

One of the biggest challenges for the incoming coach is to revitalise a defence guilty of shipping cheap goals.

Still, with captain Lee Wallace and Clint Hill, they have a pair of hardened grafters who should relish the battle. After a slow start to his Ibrox arrival, Hill, along with fellow veteran Kenny Miller, would be fairly exempt from the stinging criticism after several weak-willed outings.

As usual, Celtic players will not take matters for granted as they compete against Emerson Hyndman and Jon Toral, who have shown midfield promise.

Dembele, a force of nature, is a prime example of where the Celts are at the moment. Thirty-two goals in all competitions is a sensational return for Rodgers' faith in the former Fulham player.

For a 20-year-old who has already netted a hat-trick against Rangers, Dembele is also a level-headed guy, content to stay with the Hoops for the foreseeable future. Celtic supporters are glad to relax and enjoy his sprightly feats for the time being. The Frenchman is capable of running riot against Rangers and Murty will surely have some plan to try and restrict him.

The sheer inevitability of this particular Old Firm game is striking. While it comes too early for Caixinha, Rangers' potential conquistador is set to realise what he's letting himself in for.

Belfast Telegraph

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