We will never know if, after defeating Celtic on 29 December last year, Steven Gerrard genuinely believed Rangers could win the Scottish title. The Old Firm were tied at the summit – albeit Celtic had a game in hand – triggering widespread excitement that here was a long-awaited duel for the flag.
Celtic, as it transpired, were in no mood to fuel the narrative: they eased to an eighth league title in succession after Scotland’s top flight returned from its winter break. Rangers’ early-2019 form, good as opposed to excellent, was not sufficient to keep pace.
Gerrard is unlikely to proclaim an imminent shift in Glasgow football power should Rangers emerge from Celtic Park with three points on Sunday but, as was the case two decades ago, Old Firm matches once again appear crucial to the destination of silverware. Yet if we are to believe this season represents a shift in backdrop from those in the recent past, a year ago at Ibrox supplies counterpoints.
Celtic, on their home turf, must sense the possibility of hammering home a message before the Premiership goes into hibernation. Neil Lennon’s team have played a game more than their oldest foes but a points advantage of eight, should they win, would be almost insurmountable for Rangers.
Evidence for that lies in the paucity of the rest of the league’s resistance. Since Celtic lost at Livingston in October, they have won 13 domestic matches in a row, scoring 38 times in the process. Rangers’ draws at Tynecastle and Pittodrie are blemishes on a record that has otherwise seen them lose just once in the league – to Celtic. There won’t be a sudden, mutual shipping of points between January and May.
Rangers can derive either hope or frustration from the League Cup final at the start of this month. Gerrard’s men demonstrated they can match their adversaries over 90 minutes: Rangers were the better team at Hampden Park, yet lost 1-0. “I couldn’t ask for any more from the players,” Gerrard said. “I was proud of their efforts. They did everything apart from capitalise on the moments we created for ourselves. I believe if you keep asking questions, you will get your reward.” In Gerrard’s defence, he has enjoyed success against Celtic elsewhere.
If this all affords the former Liverpool captain confidence, that Celtic – with 10 men and well below their best – could snatch victory offers an implication of what can transpire if Lennon’s team turn up.
“A lot has been made of that,” said Celtic’s manager of the League Cup display. “You have to remember we didn’t have a fit centre-forward [owing to Odsonne Édouard’s injury]. We had to rejig things and they still came through. Many would feel we didn’t play at our best but we still won. People talk about the final; they don’t talk about our performance at Ibrox, where we were utterly dominant and won comfortably.”
Lennon is of course correct in his recollection of early September’s 2-0 win. Gerrard’s starting XI and subsequent inability to alter the flow of a game that was slipping away from Rangers raised questions. The same concerns around Gerrard were legitimate in the closing stages of the League Cup final as Rangers ran out of ideas and variation.
A fixture bogged down by over‑the-top tribalism has a wider, useful value. Both halves of Glasgow’s big two have players capable of operating at a higher level. Édouard and Alfredo Morelos are widely heralded as blue-chip players but others – Ryan Christie, Callum McGregor, Ryan Jack and Glen Kamara – should relish the chance to demonstrate their abilities to a broader audience than is customary.
It should not be an affront to Rangers to suggest Celtic retain the superior talents, individually and collectively, given derbies are not played out on paper.
“They show no signs of letting up,” said Lennon of his players. The domestic record suggests that is precisely the case.
This isn’t exactly Rangers’ last hope of prising back the title but should Celtic Park witness a home win, the chances of those in green and white not making it nine in a row will feel desperately slim.