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Pressure is cranked up as Gerrard must deliver

Different class: Celtic players celebrate after clinching the Scottish Premiership title last season
Different class: Celtic players celebrate after clinching the Scottish Premiership title last season

By Julian Taylor

Shortly after Steven Gerrard took over at Rangers last summer, what appeared to be a minor admonishment of his players could, in fact, be deemed as his overall philosophy in a fundamental thirst for success.

In the Light Blues' training camp under Andalusian sun, the Ibrox boss noted a moment of complacency before instructing that his men hunt for the ball in every single area of the pitch. "Get it into your heads - now." The gain in Spain. So very Gerrard. The gegenpress was shifting to Glasgow.

Rangers must acknowledge, though, elements of general lacking last term as a number of avoidable draws helped Celtic create the nine-point gap which puts them in sight of a record-equalling ninth successive title.

Gerrard observed a certain profligacy on Thursday night in Luxembourg too, before eliminating Progres Niederkorn to reach the third qualifying round of the Europa League, a competition, incidentally, where Rangers exceeded expectations last autumn.

It's essentially just as well Gerrard - like counterpart Neil Lennon at Celtic - lives for the intense theatre accompanying the unique brusqueness of Old Firm steerage.

As others have found out the hard way at Ibrox, such territory is not for everyone. Liverpool icon Gerrard is, theoretically, born for this spotlight and responsibility. Yet if his maiden season was a case of even the most demanding of Rangers supporters accepting their new manager should be cut some slack, then no such accommodation will be afforded now.

Quite simply, Gerrard needs to deliver, particularly against a Celtic squad recharging.

Seven new faces have arrived at Ibrox and the appeal of performing under Gerrard's watch is obvious, a point made by veteran Jermain Defoe. How much easier it is to attract the likes of Sweden defender Filip Helander from Bologna when a world-famous name occupies the chair.

Rangers' expected push will be led again by James Tavernier, their consistent captain. And Steven Davis is sure to play a major role alongside central goalscoring pivot Joe Aribo.

Can the Northern Ireland legend (34) rinse a memorable turn? Of all his squad, Davis is perhaps the individual Gerrard trusts most, alongside Tavernier, Defoe and keeper Allan McGregor. Last season, Rangers looked dynamic in a couple of Glasgow derby victories and, while shortcomings elsewhere cost them, similar energy and focus this time may generate arguably the greatest reward of them all.

Speaking of trust, if there is one man Celtic can count on for commitment and integrity it is Lennon. As the 'treble treble' champions reassemble, how will the manager respond to even greater challenges?

Ulsterman Lennon has been personally invigorated after achieving Celts' goals of retaining the title and winning the Scottish Cup, especially when his temporary tenure was often unfairly questioned since suddenly replacing Brendan Rodgers. Parkhead patrons demanded lavish (and prohibitively expensive) names like Rafa Benitez, only to witness their familiar old amigo keenly agree a long-haul tenancy instead.

Realistically, however, it may be inspired, as few others could guide Celtic through this fresh and crucial campaign with the measure of history attached as Lennon. Occasionally defensive as the pressure intensified at the business end of 2018-19, the 44-year-old's belief that he "knows a thing or two about winning things at this club" is the attitude the Hoops need after a healthy summer clearing of decks.

Still, both Rangers and Celtic may have to consider serious offers for Alfredo Morelos and Kieran Tierney respectively, and this month will be a waiting game for prospective deals.

Lennon's contingencies have taken place with, so far, four new players and there is no question of Celtic rejecting a £25m+ offer for Scotland defender Tierney, their marauding, if fragile, talent.

Even AC Milan appear interested in Kristoffer Ajer which could mean Lennon overseeing things with a new-look rearguard. Not an ideal scenario.

At £7m, defender Christopher Jullien is expected to settle quickly and Ukrainian winger Marian Shved comes highly rated. While Celtic could use a Lubo Moravcik type to emerge from seemingly nowhere, the return of Leigh Griffiths is a real tonic. The forward's eight-month absence due to depression adds to Celtic's still massively formidable attacking dimensions.

Although, ridiculously, we must hark back to 1984-85 for the last time the title eluded the Glasgow giants, potential prospects from elsewhere will influence matters.

Hearts should trouble the Old Firm on occasion. Northern Ireland trio Michael Smith, Bobby Burns and Conor Washington may feature prominently and the capture of Steven Naismith on a permanent contract is spiking Tynecastle ambition.

Across Edinburgh, meanwhile, Hibernian, under ex-Leeds manager Paul Heckingbottom, disproved old assumptions that a new boss needs to have a firm Scottish grounding in order to make an impact. Florian Kamberi, Martin Boyle and Oli Shaw continue to spearhead the Easter Road charge.

Aberdeen and, more strikingly, Motherwell will have their moments, especially the latter, whose manager Stephen Robinson is buoyed by a new contract until 2022. The Steelmen managed to retain sharp midfielder David Turnbull and Ulsterman Robinson thrives on challenges.

Kilmarnock may have finished third last season, but it is extremely unlikely they will resurrect under Angelo Alessio as they did with Steve Clarke, now Scotland boss.

Regular factors - injuries, consistency and quality - eventually extinguishes pretensions from outside Glasgow by the winter break. This time around, something, finally, has to give, with Lennon holding slight advantage of extensive Premiership experience and all its high twists.

Flair and grind, constructed by tireless managers. Gerrard, in particular, is under no illusions.

Belfast Telegraph


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