It’s been just over 13 months since we last played Celtic. Although it was the first time the clubs had faced each other since Rangers were demoted to the old Third Division, it wasn’t much of a game – League Cup semi-final or not. Celtic were huge favourites and Rangers were struggling on and off the pitch. Suffice to say a cursory look at the teams from that day shows the gulf in quality and the eventual 0-2 reverse was probably privately seen by most bears as acceptable enough all things considered. However, with the teams now drawn against each other in the semi-final of this year’s Scottish Cup, I doubt the same negative outlook will be employed this year.
First of all, Rangers are an entirely different prospect. Yes, we still don’t have our legal problems to seek and it’s because of these, as well as onerous contracts restricting the money we can earn, the club remains in a challenging financial situation. But in the year since Dave King and the three bears assumed control of the boardroom, the future is much brighter - not least because of the changes made to our on-field operations. Quite simply it’s like night and day on the park.
Clearly the main reason for this is the new management team. Mark Warburton and Davie Weir could not be more different in their footballing backgrounds but they seem to have the kind of mutual understanding that ensures any partnership is a success. Weir remains the quiet, unassuming gentleman we experienced during his time as club captain while Warburton is the daily public face of the club – never hiding from criticism or debate over his contribution. Moreover, the changes they’ve made throughout the football operation can’t be under-estimated. Frank McParland is an experienced, shrewd operator and has helped deliver the kind of affordable and clever player acquisitions that fans have wanted for a long, long time. Backed up by Craig Mulholland and his youth coaches then it means we have an agreeable mix of players experienced enough to understand what’s required in a professional sense but at the right age to develop further.
Indeed, it says a lot that every player that has come in this season (upwards of 12) has contributed positively to the first team. With a 14 point lead at the top of the Championship table and only three losses in total (including one against St Johnstone in the League Cup last autumn), Rangers have shown why they’re now huge favourites to finally return to the top flight next season. In fact, with an impressive goal difference of over 50, we can secure the league title as early as April 5th against Dumbarton at Ibrox - ten days before we’re due to face Celtic in the Cup. Unfortunately, it may be international call-ups stop this happening (the late March game against Queen of the South could be postponed) but as long as we keep winning between now and our trips to Hampden in April, promotion will be all but guaranteed.
Note, an hour or two after this article was posted, a statement from the Rangers chairman as well as very positive interim financial results were posted on the official Rangers website. Further good news for our supporters and more elements added to the perfect storm!
I highlight Hampden trips plural because a further bonus for us is that the week before we play Celtic, we’re due to play Peterhead in the Challenge Cup Final at the national stadium. With a new surface to be laid for this week’s League Cup Final it means we’ll have the advantage of playing on this only six or seven days before the semi-final. Celtic supporters can leave their conspiracy theories in the comments section at the bottom of this article!
With our East End chums in mind, another clear difference between the game from last February and next month’s is the form of Celtic. Whilst it’s unlikely Aberdeen or Hearts can achieve a level of result consistent enough to stop the Parkhead club winning a fifth straight Premiership title, at this moment in time, Celtic are certainly struggling to impress. Indeed, although their squad hasn’t altered quite as much as ours, their starting XI may contain as many as four changes from the side that cruised to victory against as last season. Given three of those changes may also be in defence then there’s food for thought for our attack ahead of the game. Whisper it but even Martyn Waghorn might be fit again – though we certainly didn’t miss him against Dundee on Saturday!
Despite that glorious performance at the weekend a lot can happen in the six weeks between now and when we do play Celtic. As much as our recent results (Alloa aside) have been impressive, our greatest rivals are a different proposition. Notwithstanding Ronny Deila’s struggle to wield the large number of options at his disposal into the kind of free-flowing system we have, Celtic still have the capability to hurt any team in Scotland. Craig Gordon is a good ‘keeper; Tierney and Lustig are a threat at full-back and Leigh Griffiths usually has plenty of goal opportunities created by a midfield that can be as difficult to guess as ours in terms of selection. Ergo, as much as we’re as positive as any time for several years, there’s a difference between high morale and over-confidence. Celtic are no Dundee, Hibs or Kilmarnock.
Nevertheless, the signs are very good for the men from Ibrox. Improved stability off the park; a much improved team on it; an astute manager; upbeat supporters; Hampden pitch familiarity and the chance to play the game free of league promotion worries offers a combination of circumstances that could supply the perfect storm for us to prevail next month. Of course Celtic remain favourites but, unlike last year's match, this Old Firm game has enough elements which merit the excitement brought about by uncertainty.
Bring it on!
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