Belfast Telegraph

Home Sport Football Scottish

Rangers v Celtic: Hoops can expose all of the work that Gerrard still needs to do

Renewing battle: Gers boss Steven Gerrard with Celtic chief Brendan Rodgers during the Bhoys’ 1-0 win at Parkhead earlier this season
Renewing battle: Gers boss Steven Gerrard with Celtic chief Brendan Rodgers during the Bhoys’ 1-0 win at Parkhead earlier this season

By Julian Taylor

Under different circumstances, Brendan Rodgers would have been one of those on Steven Gerrard's blue chip call sheet this week, perhaps for morsels of advice on how to prepare for your first Old Firm derby at home in front of an intensely demanding and sometimes anxious crowd.

Rangers boss Gerrard has been speaking to both Rafa Benitez and Gareth Southgate over the last few days for general football chat and the wider discussions were welcomed; minor intermissions in the all-consuming shadow play ahead of what is a massive clash against Celtic.

Fortunately for Gerrard, he is one to admit that in management - a role he is still very much coming to terms with - leaning on those around him at Ibrox remains paramount. Off the pitch, assistants Gary McAllister and Michael Beale focus on the minutiae, and on it, those veterans such as keeper Allan McGregor and Gareth McAuley help with standards and focus.

Rangers know this is a fundamental game to shape their mood going into the winter break. Already overstretched in squad size and number of games played, due to a lengthy Europa League campaign, concentration levels must be maximised against Rodgers' men, so noted for both speed of thought and clinical execution.

Celtic are back on top of the Premiership, three points ahead of Rangers, and the Hoops boss is feeling slightly less pressure. The reality is that, apart from goalkeeper and central striker, Celtic are stronger in every area.

Mentally, the recovery from cumbersome early season form is almost exclusively down to Rodgers' cajoling. Playing Celtic at this point requires yet another different slant for Gerrard, who has had to vary his teams' approach between playing both Rapid Vienna and Hamilton.

How do Rangers contest a superior midfield, for instance? Can 20-goal Alfredo Morelos count on Kyle Lafferty, in a game sure to supply evidence as to the wisdom, or otherwise, of bringing the Northern Ireland forward back to Ibrox?

Rodgers would probably be satisfied with a point even though Celtic, as always, are capable of hurting Rangers going forward and, in Scott Sinclair, we are seeing a player at his lightning best. Ironically, Morelos' blistering goal in the 1-1 Ibrox draw with Hibernian was the kind of goal Sinclair - who netted at hat-trick at Aberdeen on Wednesday - specialises in.

The Englishman's vigour will ask questions of a clunky Rangers rearguard where Gerrard has to decide his best personnel. Leigh Griffiths remains absent for Celtic but, at their finest, with the energy of Ryan Christie, Callum McGregor and James Forrest, this is an irresistible outfit. Therefore, even the rawest coach can observe that to sit back and defend against Rodgers' show ponies invites a fatal threat.

Hibernian, Kilmarnock and Hearts have all succeeded against Celtic due to a high press strategy. But hunting in packs requires supreme fitness, a demand perhaps beyond Rangers at this point in time. Nevertheless, foraging Lafferty can be significant and he has been unfortunate not to have been on the scoresheet more often.

In plugging gaps, Celtic have had the better fortune to an extent in the recent loan market. Filip Benkovic is a neater fit at Parkhead than counterpart Joe Worrall, whose lackadaisical style and naivety is not winning Ibrox admirers.

Fresh from a League Cup triumph, a derby day appeals to Rodgers' forensic, on hand coaching intellect. It will be interesting to see how the Ulsterman addresses the possible absence of Kieran Tierney as Emilio Izaguirre is slowing down.

Conversely, the impression of both Gerrard and Gers' desperation to wound the title holders is escalating. Such notions are almost crazy, considering the closeness of the two in the table but, as McAuley admitted recently, "second at this club is nowhere".

This is not Gerrard's final product and the winter break, allied to clever additions - Northern Ireland's Steven Davis should be one of them - will have Rangers in better shape. Brittleness was apparent against Aberdeen and Dundee over recent weeks, whereas Celtic proved their character with that 4-3 midweek win at Pittodrie. A bulletproof mentality is often the best attribute.

The window is open for Rodgers to extend Celtic's advantage, leaving Gerrard to ask himself further questions or, indeed, make a few more calls.

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph