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Rangers v Celtic: European highs add sizzle to Old Firm showdown

Glory days: Steven Gerrard and Gary McAllister hail Rangers’ win over Legia
Glory days: Steven Gerrard and Gary McAllister hail Rangers’ win over Legia
Neil Lennon

By Julian Taylor

For two of the game's biggest and most uncompromising competitors, in any capacity, Thursday night's respective exploits represented both a watershed and a clear-eyed visualisation of the immediate future. Hope, reputation, a relative sense of glory and the kind of income that can enhance a squad.

Steven Gerrard and Neil Lennon both orchestrated the kind of results in Europe that go significantly beyond the prize of Europa League group stage football. This competition is, amongst others, serious business.

Rangers host Celtic in the Premiership's first Old Firm derby of the season tomorrow with both clubs warming the reputation of Scottish football.

While both deal with headaches of Uefa charges for fan misbehaviour and sectarianism - a whole, taxing, separate subject matter entirely - on the pitch at least players have impressed while finding what already appears to be an apparent continental niche, at last.

As one of the world's great footballing cities, Glasgow will come into its own once again throughout the autumn, with Young Boys, Porto and Feyenoord arriving at Ibrox, while Celtic face recent foes Cluj, plus Rennes and Lazio.

Shouldering the judgments as always, Lennon knows this terrain only too well as both Celtic player and manager for a second spell.

His delight after AIK Stockholm were dismantled 4-1 in Sweden confirmed just how pleased he is that the Parkhead side have rediscovered their verve so soon after the self-destruction this month at home to Cluj; as grisly and infamous a Champions League episode in the club's recent history.

Still, Celtic's performance on Thursday also proved to many that here we have a Scottish side prepared to go to a tricky arena and play with confidence and lightness of touch, exemplified with the combination of Odsonne Edouard and James Forrest setting them apart.

How important will the memories of Stockholm be when Celtic take flight again in the hope of extracting valuable points against, say, Lazio in Rome? They have, on the face of it at least, an easier group task than Rangers. The feel-good factor enveloping both Glasgow giants as they woke to embrace yesterday's Uefa draw imbues the derby clash with extra sizzle, if that's even possible.

Rangers boss Gerrard was - despite choosing his words in the raucous aftermath of a late Alfredo Morelos winner to see off Legia Warsaw - emotional. Drained, but downright relieved.

The threat posed by Legia hovered for days across Gerrard's conscience, where defeat for Rangers would have scribbled a gloomy texture not only in respect of tomorrow but for a sizeable chunk of this season in addition to reducing the club's potential spending power. His final whistle celebrations at Ibrox were startling symptoms of a certain belief that European progress for Rangers carries equal priority to challenging Celtic for this season's title.

Moreover, the spectacle of assistant boss Gary McAllister, normally as languid a personality as they come, cavorting on the pitch and hugging the staff illustrated how everyone at Ibrox appears to be gelling and focused on big rewards.

Neither Gerrard or McAllister came to Scotland simply for the satisfaction of overcoming Motherwell, St Mirren and St Johnstone.

Lennon, meanwhile, is entitled to feel vindicated after the AIK success.

It was imperative for the Ulsterman to lift both his personal spirits and that of the players following the Cluj nightmare.

Celtic have frittered at least £20m of potential Champions League income but, perhaps surprisingly, the response has been excellent.

The Celtic manager has the comfort of going to Ibrox knowing there will be no repeat of the indolence which contributed to a brace of defeats against Rangers last term, and that the Hoops' goal threat will be hard even for the steely hosts to handle, particularly in the latter stages.

Once again, Forrest, Ryan Christie and Edouard all have the speed and subtlety to cause havoc, helped by Callum McGregor's probing from a deeper role.

Defensively, both Lennon and Gerrard still have to find some answers. Lennon, who moved quickly to re-sign former keeper Fraser Forster on loan in the slipstream of the Cluj inquest, may give new recruit Moritz Bauer, a defender with "attitude", a role if Kristoffer Ajer is unfit.

The mood music in Glasgow since the pair's Euro exploits predicts a high-scoring clash, with Celtic having netted 15 times in their last three league games.

Lennon may be of the feeling that Rangers - like the rest of domestic opposition - can be exposed on the counter-attack if Celtic resist a likely early storm.

And here's a little curiosity. Rangers' boisterous and unpredictable Morelos is still to score in this fixture.

The Colombian let his team-mates down with a reckless sending off at Parkhead last season but, considering his winner against Legia, Gerrard hopes tomorrow will finally be his time, especially against an unsettled Celts rearguard.

Other intriguing deliberations for the Ibrox chief include featuring Jordan Jones, the blossoming Northern Ireland international's sublime late cross contributing to the Legia coup, and the big improvement made by centre-half Nikola Katic.

Naturally, amid all the uproar, Rangers' Steven Davis and Celtic skipper Scott Brown will discreetly wear the imagery of players who have seen it and done it all.

Never underestimate a veteran's influence.

The Europa League progress of both clubs has been a real tonic for the Scottish game's often jittery reputation, following the shock exits for Aberdeen and Kilmarnock before the summer has drifted away. Gerrard and Lennon can anticipate the best of theatrical nights to come.

As for tomorrow, expect an unseemly sharing of the spoils of war.

Belfast Telegraph


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