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Stephen Craigan: Rangers and Celtic are set for a cracking title battle

Fans in full flow at the Old Firm match
Fans in full flow at the Old Firm match
Stephen Craigan

By Stephen Craigan

It’s been a hectic start to the season in particular for Celtic and Rangers and now its time for both managers to take a deep breath and evaluate how they’ve fared so far domestically and in Europe.

Both have lost just one domestic game apiece so overall they will think it’s been a fairly decent start to their respective campaigns.

Neil Lennon’s Celtic won emphatically in the first Old Firm game in early September to lay down a marker to their rivals that they intend to hold onto their title.

Since then in the Scottish Premiership they have dropped five points in the three games that have preceded that win and have relinquished top spot in the process. This early in the season it isn’t really that significant who is top of the pile but the manner of the performances recently in the draw at Hibernian and defeat at Livingston will have Neil pondering why the drop off in performance.

Surprisingly they lacked a little bit of creativity and looked flat at times in both games.

With regards to Rangers the response to the Old Firm defeat will have pleased Steven Gerrard the most. They have won their three games since, scoring 14 goals in the process and conceding just once. This has elevated them to the top of the league, and although Gerrard said after last weekend’s win against Hamilton that it’s only October so let’s not get carried away, he’ll be delighted privately with the character his side have shown.

The next test for Rangers is to get over an obstacle that hindered them last season.

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Twice they went top of the league and lost their next game. In early December after going top they then lost at home to Aberdeen and in January after beating Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic and going joint top with them, they followed that up with defeat to Kilmarnock.

So all eyes will be on Rangers as they face Hearts at Tynecastle on Sunday October 20 in their next Premiership fixture to see if they can cope with being the league leaders.

In terms of European football, up until now Lennon and Gerrard will be pleased with their progress. Both sides have probably delivered their most complete performance of the season to date in the group stages of the Europa League.

Rangers’ opening win against Feyenoord was everything Steven Gerrard would have wanted. Rangers pressed high and won the ball in very good areas, they played with great intensity and created plenty of opportunities to win by more than the solitary Shey Ojo wonder strike.

Celtic’s revenge win, if you want to call it that after Romanians Cluj who knocked them out of the Champions League, on match day two will have pleased Neil Lennon no end. The energy his side showed was exceptional, their creative spark was evident as they cut through Cluj at times with their interplay, and if truth be told, 2-0 flattered the away side.

The international break may have arrived at just the right time for Neil Lennon after the Livingston defeat so some of his players can get freshened up.

For Steven Gerrard he would probably have preferred to keep playing as his side are on a roll.

However there’s only eight league games gone with 30 still to play in what I think will be the tightest title race in years.

The pendulum may have swung in favour of Rangers this time but believe me there’s plenty of life left yet in Neil Lennon’s side. The momentum will swing back and forth as the season progresses — of that there is no doubt.

Football in Glasgow isn’t straightforward and although it’s the blue half, which is enjoying the bragging rights just now, it can all change very quickly.

Rotterdam was a heart-breaker... but O'Neill's men have spirit to come back

You don't always get what you deserve in football and Thursday night's heartbreak in Rotterdam is the case in point.

It’s the first time since I retired seven years ago that I could genuinely say I was devastated after a game.

It brought back the raw emotion of how the game we love can be so cruel.

The Northern Ireland players put in an incredible performance and had the mighty Netherlands on the back foot.

The game-plan was carried out perfectly and it felt like the Euros were within our grasp when Josh Magennis headed home with 15 minutes to go.

The players and manager will play the last few minutes over and over in their head and it will hurt for a long time. They will do a lot of soul searching and think what they could have done differently. As the days pass it will drift to the back of their mind but it will still be there.

However football doesn’t stand still and wait for you and there’s always another challenge ahead. Moments like this shape your character and you have two choices. You can feel sorry for yourself or it inspires you to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

We may be down as a nation but in true Northern Ireland spirit we certainly aren’t out!

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