Deputy Sport Editor Adam Robertson discusses the recent Scottish premier league games and whether or not the results mean there is finally a race for the title again, at long last.
It’s easy to get carried away in football. The image of a league table, along with any team’s respective fortunes could change by the end of next week, on the back of a 1-0 victory, a shocking 4-0 loss or, as is the norm these days, an overturned decision courtesy of VAR. Yet, if the early days of the Scottish Premiership are anything to go by, it’s that a title-race may very well be on the cards again. Unsurprisingly, the two teams involved are the age-old Glasgow rivals, Rangers and Celtic. Timing and perspective are key to how any club is viewed at a given moment. So, at the beginning of the season when Neil Lennon’s side lost Kieran Tierney and were then defeated in a crucial Champions League qualifier in a short space of time, it was always going to lead to a hyperbolic reaction. According to Twitter, the club was in crisis within a few minutes of the fulltime whistle at Parkhead after their 4-3 defeat to FC Cluj. However, the beginning of the season sees them undefeated, with a draw away to Hibs last weekend ending their perfect start. Moreover, a 2-0 win at Ibrox over their arch-rivals was particularly impressive.
Tactically, Lennon’s side were perfect, pressing Rangers high and preventing any kind of rhythm. The game seen Rangers create minimal scoring opportunities and ultimately come away having given their all, but deservedly beaten. The worry of setting such high-standards, as Celtic have done in the last few seasons with their completion of the treble-treble, is that you can become a victim of your own success.
At big clubs, the desire for trophies is ever-lasting. To end the green side of Glasgow’s dominance would simply mean denying them a fourth straight treble; it would not mean seeing them in a state beyond the repair. A lot is made of the Old Firm rivalry in Scotland. Often, it can see the other teams in the league ignored in favour of two giants chasing the big prize. Ultimately though, Rangers were always bound to at least close the gap and with the resources and attraction of a big club, a subsequent gap between them and the rest of the league has emerged once again.
That being said, both Rangers and Celtic have not necessarily found it easy against the sides below them. It is just that, in difficult matches, both have found a way to win in the way that title contenders must. Look at Liverpool and Manchester City last season. Vincent Kompany’s longrange strike against Leicester to ensure a 1-0 victory and a last-minute Divock Origi strike to ensure a win away to Newcastle for Jurgen Klopp’s men were indicative of the fine margins that defines football. Rangers first game of the season actually saw a victory which could define their status at the end of the season. A poor second half performance against Kilmarnock meant a last-minute winner from centre-back Connor Goldson was needed for the three points. As Gerrard himself has said about last season, “If the games finished after 86 minutes, we’d have won the league.” Similarly, Celtic have also had to grind out victories, with a 1-0 away win to Hamilton being an indicator of that.
As mentioned, it’s not that these clubs will roll over easy, but the mark of any top club is the ability to win even when they are not at their best. It’s a trait that both Rangers and Celtic have already been forced to demonstrate. The biggest change for Rangers so far this season is that their ability to break down stubborn teams has changed massively. It was these games last year that essentially cost them a chance at a title-race. However, the final six games of last season resulted in a formation change as Gerrard’s side moved from a rigid 4-3-3 to a more fluid 4-3-2-1, allowing for more runners in behind whilst still allowing for width from either the full-backs or wingers.
Their victory over Aberdeen last weekend was a clear indication of their improvement. Last season saw seven fixtures between the two-sides, with Derek McInnes’ side wining three, Rangers winning two and the other matches being drawn. Aberdeen’s game-plan was always the same though – sit deep, tight man-marking and prevent clear goal scoring opportunities. It was the side who arguably inflicted the most damage on Gerrard’s side last year as they were responsible for their exit in both cup competitions. However, a 5-0 victory over Aberdeen at the weekend showed that Rangers have finally learned patience is the key to a manager’s success. A tactical maturity seems to have developed in them, as well as a maturity in their star man Alfredo Morelos, whose disciplinary record made him a controversial figure last season despite his thirty-goal contribution. Should the Colombian keep up his sensational form, a big-money bid will more than likely be expected. Rangers shape meant Aberdeen were dragged all over the place, creating space for runners. Two penalties on top of this meant the Dons suffered their heaviest defeat at Ibrox since December 2010. The next key step for Rangers is to win their league-cup semi-final against Hearts in order to set up a final with either Hibs or Celtic. It’s vital for Gerrard to deliver some silverware, not just to end Celtic’s dominance but to get a trophy under his team’s belt.
Winning one should spur them on for more. A nation’s status is often judged by the performance of their clubs in European competition. It was no coincidence last year that the European Cup winners, Liverpool, could not allow for any margin of error in their own league. It creates a drive and a mentality that lets the player’s know they cannot slip up. We only need to turn our attention to Ligue 1, where PSG have strolled their league in six of the last seven seasons. Yet, even with the signings of Neymar and Mbappe, the club has failed to progress past the quarter-finals of Europe’s elite club competition. Whilst Scotland’s poor co-efficient rating means only one team can enter the Champions League, a competitive league could help either club take the next step, either by reaching the group stage or by trying to progress through the latter stages of the Europa league. The constant efforts to outdo each other could easily be a factor in Europe with both sitting in the Europa league group stages. Both sides got off to a good start, with Rangers beating Dutch outfit Feyenoord 1-0 at home and Celtic picking up a point away from home against French side Rennes. As a result of Ranger’s improvement in what were previously difficult league games, there is a sense that the old-firms have not been this big for a long-time.
Last year seen four meetings overall as the sides never met in cup competitions. In the end, the spoils were shared with each side winning both their respective home ties. Mentally, it was huge for Gerrard’s side who recorded their first league win over Celtic since 2012. Whilst they lost both games at Parkhead, they did match their rivals, particularly in the 2-1 defeat which saw them concede solely to individual errors. Given the way they have both started the season, neither of them is looking likely to stumble before they are forced to play one another. Should each of them progress through their league-cup semi-finals against Hibs and Hearts respectively, it will be the biggest old-firm since Rangers’ return to the top flight.
One will be competing for a tenth straight domestic trophy; the other competing to put an end to it and start an era of dominance themselves. For all the hysteria surrounding Celtic at the start of the season, the nature of their rivalry with Rangers means each side will always be measured against the other. It perhaps shows that Celtic have not got worse in any way, Rangers have just got markedly better. This is not to belittle Lennon’s side as, in hindsight, the criticism has not defined their start to the season. After all, the beginning of last year was marked by an early Champions league exit. Yet, by the time Brendan Rodgers took his leave, they had retained the Scottish league-cup and were in a position which would see them comfortably win an eight straight league title. It was easy to be critical of Lennon’s appointment when it was first made.
After all, with the work Brendan Rodgers is doing at Leicester, it’s clear his aim is to manage at the highest level, perhaps using the Foxes as a stepping stone to a topsix job. It’s still early days and, although a cliché, there is still a lot of football to be played. The league’s other sides are unlikely to lie down in pursuit of their own goals, be it survival or a top six finish. What is certain though is that, for the first time in a while, Scotland has two title contenders who seem evenly matched in terms of individual quality, if not recent domestic success. The Scottish league was always accustomed to being built on the prospect of a title-race every season. Now, at long last, it looks like we might finally have that back.