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Resurgent Gers proving they have quality to cause Celtic problems


Pointing the way: Rangers manager Graeme Murty
Pointing the way: Rangers manager Graeme Murty

By Julian Taylor

Tomorrow's eagerly anticipated Old Firm derby will, as usual, remain tribal, toxic and lacking any sporting or ecumenical overtones.

Yet this time there's an obvious difference. The prospect of vital competition, clearly absent for a stretch in the Scottish game - and not a foregone conclusion for Celtic.

This week, the absolute blizzard of pre-match coverage contained variations on a number of themes.

Is this Rangers resurgence the real deal? Are Celtic falling, albeit subtly, to the law of diminishing returns? Is all the pressure on Rangers, as Brendan Rodgers claims?

The Ibrox showdown is the first of two huge collisions between the clubs, with a Scottish Cup semi-final next month also weighty, with promise for both Rodgers and counterpart Graeme Murty.

Other clubs, such as Hibernian and Kilmarnock, look the part at times but the truth of the matter is the wider attention spans centre inexorably on Celtic and Rangers, six years on from the Light Blues' financial mayhem.

There remains nothing like this in the British game, more so now that the outcome once again appears unpredictable.

Rodgers is correct, to an extent, in saying that all the pressure lies with the Gers tomorrow.

Celtic are still in the box seat, holding a six-point lead with a game in hand. Rangers must win if they are to retain hope of what would be a seismic title victory ahead of reasonable schedule.

However, Rodgers is, arguably, manoeuvring certain realities.

Although Murty has tackled the disorganisation left by calamitous ex-coach Pedro Caixinha to a degree, Rangers were supposedly never in with a realistic chance of overhauling last season's 'Invincibles'.

Yet here they are, on the slipstream, mainly as a consequence of sacking Caixinha, plus a shrewd January recruitment drive. The role of Jimmy Nicholl since his arrival to assist temporary boss Murty is worth noting too.

Old Firm old hand Nicholl occupies a mentoring role that younger Rangers players, like centre-half David Bates and midfielder Josh Windass, may require ahead of this fixture.

An air of determined, relaxed confidence has sparked a run of nine victories in 10 games since the Ulsterman pitched up.

This brisk sequence will be tested by Celtic, who have enjoyed a decent, uninterrupted, week's work. Statistically, Rodgers can afford to be calm following three successive wins in Govan. And ultra-committed captain Scott Brown is not the type to ever become blase about victory over Rangers. Still, concerns are being expressed at Parkhead. While Rangers have improved substantially, witness a scoreless draw in the last derby, Celtic haven't, in the main, engineered the style of last season's treble.

It seems peculiar, but if Rangers do go within three points of their bitter rivals then Rodgers will face inevitable criticism.

The Celtic manager expects ruthlessness from big game favourites James Forrest, Callum McGregor and Moussa Dembele against a Gers defence sometimes nervy at home.

Celtic's central defence is vulnerable to pace, despite the growth of Kristoffer Ajer, and can be exposed if all this Rangers' positivity is genuine, with Alfredo Morelos and Jamie Murphy providing aggression and zest. Meanwhile, Murty must decide if loanee Jason Cummings, who netted a hat trick against Falkirk in the Scottish Cup last week, is to play a starting role.

Rodgers' men are proven, though, to answer domestic examinations. Crucially, after losing to Zenit St Petersburg last month, Celtic dispatched Aberdeen at Pittodrie. Rampaging prodigy, and fan favourite, Kieran Tierney fired home the type of goal he can also conceivably supply on the break at Ibrox.

Fire, fury and even a little flair then. Rangers have tempted their supporters into thinking of possibilities. And Rodgers? How will he feel if Celtic's league lead is cut with a cup semi-final still to play? Such fine lines.

Belfast Telegraph


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