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Julian Taylor: Celtic needed the break a lot more then resurgent Gers


Pressure on: Rangers boss Steven Gerrard
Pressure on: Rangers boss Steven Gerrard
Neil Lennon
Peter Lawwell

By Julian Taylor

From their respective, well-appointed bases in Dubai, Rangers and Celtic will be taking a period of respite and warm-weather training to prepare for the next phase of their title battle - and both teams are expected to address growing wishes.

In view of their recent derby loss to Rangers, naturally, the ramifications facing Celtic manager Neil Lennon and, increasingly, Nick Hammond, director of football operations, are weighty. A crunch few weeks are in store. Does Lennon keep exact faith in his treble winners, or is the call to shake things up more audible?

Observing the sweeping inquests into an Old Firm defeat is something like a sport in itself. Of late it has been the turn of the Celtic support to vent and regularly get matters out of proportion. This, remember, is a team which remains top of the Premiership table, though slenderly.

With the half-term report card still to be completed, in terms of January transfer business, it would, of course, be remiss if certain Parkhead issues weren't addressed, especially in these special circumstances where an invigorated Rangers pose a serious threat to Celtic's title hegemony. Or nine-in-a-row, to be precise.

Such statistics carry a strange, curious weight in Glasgow but elsewhere, not so much. It says a lot for the parochialism and how seriously Celtic and Rangers take themselves that there is a notable lack of awareness of just how little others, especially outside Scotland, care for whether the Hoops achieve a record 10 successive titles.

Accordingly, if Gerrard takes the top prize this season it will be interpreted, quite correctly, as a major landmark in a fresh Rangers era, as opposed to simply stopping ancient rivals in their tracks.

The winter break is, overall, a positive for the Premiership sides: a chance to refresh and self-examine. And, as former Northern Ireland international Stephen Craigan pointed out in Saturday's Telegraph Sport, the intermission appears to be more timely for Celtic.

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It may even prove to be tricky in relation to the momentum engineered by Rangers, whose buoyant squad would likely have preferred to kick on following their defining 2-1 victory at Celtic Park on December 29.

Both clubs also have their Europa League commitments to consider, with Celtic facing FC Copenhagen and Rangers up against Braga in the last-32 of the competition.

Adding to the respective squads is essential, with the champions' needs arguably more pressing. Lennon is already guaranteed a chunk of the club's war chest and the seriousness of how Celtic need to spend pretty big will not be lost on chief executive Peter Lawwell.

Peter Lawwell

For it will be he, rather than Lennon, who will face flak from fans if transfer targets are not met, especially with the club enjoying a healthy financial position. The possible recruitment of Andraz Spaorar of Slovan Bratislava is still uncertain, with the free-scoring forward - a revelation in the Europa League this season, incidentally - also being watched by other clubs.

There is also the possibility of permanent business to be done in the region of £9m with Southampton for left-sided attacker Mohamed Elyounoussi, who has impressed for much of his loan spell in Glasgow.

Considering the serious challenge now bearing down on them from across the city, Celtic badly need to make a statement signing to reassure anxious supporters.

Furthermore, the fact that the Hoops are 10 points better off than they were this time last season is essentially an irrelevance due to the sustained attention from Rangers and it is wholly unfair to expect a 21-year-old forward, Odsonne Edouard - who was recently named by Uefa as one of the continent's top 50 young players - to shoulder the entire burden of a title quest.

Left-back is an issue since Kieran Tierney went to Arsenal, with replacement Boli Bolingoli erratic.

Any dealings undertaken at Ibrox, meanwhile, are less obvious.

Impetus is everything to Rangers since that win at Parkhead and Gerrard will still expect goals to come from various angles with the upcoming suspension of Alfredo Morelos.

The Light Blues could use an additional dimension in wide areas in case of injury to Ryan Kent. Sheyi Ojo and Jordan Jones are yet to fully convince when selected, and although the latter impressed against Legia Warsaw and Midtjylland in Europe, the Northern Ireland international has still to regain complete trust of his manager, the consequence of injury in September's home loss to Celtic a self-inflicted folly.

Still, Rangers' soaring self-esteem is likely to last; that much can be guaranteed with Gerrard having time to oversee developments. The Ibrox boss, with a dedicated backroom team - assistant Gary McAllister, first-team coach Michael Beale, technical coach Tom Culshaw and head of performance Jordan Milsom - has a real, ultra-professional support base for his daily tasks.

That forensic organisation is infectious as far as the players are concerned and it was significant to observe the changes at work during the Old Firm success.

Croatian pair Borna Barisic and Nikola Katic were both rock solid, their belief in themselves a crystallisation of good man-management.

Midfielder Ryan Jack is now more than a mere Caledonian Gerrard-lite: increasing dynamism, passing scope and leadership skills place the Scotland international at the heart of Rangers' drive.

His partnership with Steven Davis is vital to this Premiership challenge, with Joe Aribo also responding to his manager's methods.

Gerrard may be embryonic in coaching terms but having nailed the different variables of the Europa League, his common sense in communications is respected by the Ibrox support.

In essence, he simply wears the load because he understands the club's history - as well as himself.

For in a rare, recent moment of deeper candour, the Liverpool icon admitted that from day one he constantly visualises lifting the title for Rangers.

Neil Lennon

It's a pre-requisite to be an obsessive practitioner in these times. Lennon, of course, is one who knows this all too well.

Rangers are certainly here to stay in the race and the reality of the two remaining Old Firm games determining who wins the league is no less real for being a crude summary on the also-rans.

However, Lennon is not going to be written off on the basis of an, albeit disappointing, derby defeat.

As someone obliged to listen to fans rail against his permanent appointment for the second time on the night of retaining the Scottish Cup last May, how he reconfigures both personnel and Celtic's mood is purely another big responsibility to relish with the territory.

Belfast Telegraph


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