That Celtic had already begun their journey home from Stockholm by the time Steven Gerrard cavorted along the Ibrox touchline in celebration of a late winner on Thursday evening felt altogether appropriate. Or, at least, the maintaining of a theme. Celtic’s comprehensive dismissal of the Swedish champions, AIK, was in contrast to Rangers’ edging past Legia Warsaw, but only one ending brought manic celebration.
For Celtic, the group phase of the Europa League has felt like an alliance with a poor relation after CFR Cluj ended their Champions League dream. Twelve months ago, AEK Athens did likewise to the Scottish champions; at that stage, Brendan Rodgers had credit in the bank. This time, Neil Lennon found himself engulfed in a storm of discord that will only be removed – ludicrous though this is – with victory at Ibrox in the season’s first Old Firm game on Sunday.
“It doesn’t matter to me,” Lennon says. “That is just the environment and the atmosphere you work in in Glasgow. You can either stick your head under the table or just get on with it. I have just got on with it and we have won our last four games since Cluj. I think the criticism was a sign of the times. I am not exclusive to it, whether it be personalised or not. There are a lot of other managers get the same. It is imbalanced but you have to ignore it and face the reality of your job.”
The reality of Scotland’s top flight, with the Old Firm locked together with perfect records after three matches, is that this feels like a key joust even by their standards. While Celtic’s team are on paper the stronger, Rangers have gained considerable home momentum under Gerrard. Last season, all four league games went the way of the hosts.
That Lennon has been at pains to point towards improvement at Celtic since the summer, when he was handed the job on a permanent basis for the second time, feels perfectly fair. It has further credence in the tone towards Rangers; desperate grasps for the loftiest praise of Gerrard leading his team into the Europa League proper for a second season in a row feels over the top. The complexities of summer qualifiers aside – in this specific case, occasionally easy, occasionally testing – the Ibrox club, with staff costs last reported in excess of £20m, should regard this as perfectly natural territory. Rangers remain without a major domestic trophy since 2011, though Celtic’s dominance during the intervening years doubtless triggered skewed perspectives.
“The last eight years have been great for Celtic and we want to continue in the same vein,” Lennon adds. “I understand why neutrals would want to see a changing of the guard, so to speak, but our incentive is to go for nine and try to improve every aspect we can in the football department. We’ve scored nearly 40 goals this season already. We went and scored four away in Europe this week, for the first time in a long time, and people have sort of taken it for granted. Our form is sort of getting overlooked a bit and I don’t know why.”
The unavoidable backdrop to this fixture surrounds Uefa’s action against Rangers for the sectarian chanting of some of their supporters, with a section of Ibrox to be left empty for a second European game in succession. Lennon, who has been abused by Rangers supporters for years, was careful not to become embroiled in the matter but the actions of European football’s governing body have not escaped him.
Lennon said it was “embarrassing” that Scotland’s own football authorities have not tackled bigotry in such a manner. He also alluded to the treatment of Steve Clarke, then Kilmarnock manager, at Ibrox last season. “You don’t want it sanitised completely either but you want to strike a balance of there being a red hot atmosphere without all the vitriol that goes with it,” Lennon says. “Sometimes people turn a blind eye to it or go: ‘Och, it is only him, he can deal with it,’ but we are human beings. I think Rangers put a statement out after Steve Clarke got the abuse but there was none forthcoming for me over the years. I find that interesting as well.”
So will anything have changed by early afternoon on Sunday? “It was ever thus so I can’t imagine that changing in three of four days,” says Lennon. It feels hard to disagree.