Sport Editor Adam Robertson and Deputy Sport Editor Charlotte Cohen preview the first Old Firm of this season's Scottish Premiership, giving the lowdown on where both teams are and what to expect in one of the biggest games in football.
The day is almost upon us. One of the most hotly anticipated fixtures in the footballing calendar takes place on Saturday – the old firm. If there was ever a football match that would seem strange without fans, it’s this one. More than that though, with pubs now closed all across the central belt, anybody wanting to watch the game will more than likely have to do so from the comfort of their own home.
All that being said, there’s no doubt how much it will mean to any of the players, staff and managers – even if the city won’t quite be painted in their green or blue colours the way it usually is after a victory in this match. Nor does the lack of fans derail the potential for the football to be entertaining as it has been in the past.
Here’s the lowdown on where both teams are at the minute. In the interest of safety, we’ve decided to give a view from each side of the city.
For everybody involved at Rangers, players and manager alike, this season could be a defining one. Succeed, and they’ll be the group who stopped ten-in-a-row. Fail, and it could be another trophyless season – the only pressing matter that Gerrard is yet to solve. Should that be the case, who knows where the ex-Liverpool legend’s fate will lie.
Footballing-wise, Rangers are in the perfect place to take on Celtic. They’ve won eight of their opening ten fixtures and drawn two, scoring twenty-four in the process and, even more impressively, conceding only three. A solid defence, which also includes two brilliant full backs in captain James Tavernier and Croatian international, Borna Barisic, has provided a solid foundation as well as the width required when breaking down the stubborn defences they often come up against. At their best, Rangers are a free-flowing, entertaining team to watch. In this writer’s opinion, when they hit those levels, they are the best team in the country. Should they play at their best come Saturday, there is no reason they should be unable to match Celtic.
On the other side of this though, Rangers in recent years have lacked the winning mentality that can define title-winning seasons. Celtic have shown on more than one occasion this season they’re capable of producing them, with the most recent example coming away to St Johnstone in the last round of fixtures. Not playing at your best and still finding a way to win is something Gerrard’s side are still yet to do.
In terms of the starting XI, Rangers’ injury problems are nowhere near as bad as Celtic’s. Everybody who we should expect to start is in a position to do so and in fine form. Steven Davis, fresh off a lot of praise for his continued dedication to both club and country at the age of 35, will provide the much-needed experience this game demands. With the exception of James Tavernier, Canada international Scott Arfield has been the Gers’ best player in recent weeks ever since an impressive appearance against Dundee United and injuries opened up a space. Likewise, Ryan Kent has been in fine form, already scoring five goals this season (having scored eight in all competitions last season). The only thing which remains is who will fill that remaining spot as part of the attacking trio. Ianis Hagi and Jordan Jones seem the most likely, but both have only shown flashes of their brilliance. The former has also yet to get a taste of the derby whilst the latter was sent off in his previous appearance – severely derailing his Rangers career in the process.
Gerrard’s other issue in terms of his starting XI comes with deciding who to play as his out and out striker. Alfredo Morelos’ form has not been brilliant since football’s return, having had his head turned slightly by the prospect of a move to Lille. Since the beginning of the calendar year, he has looked a shadow of the player that was tearing apart top-class European defences, scoring just the solitary goal in the twelve games before football in Scotland ground to a halt. His record in this game also does not make for great reading. Despite some positive all-round performances, Morelos has failed to score a single goal against the ‘Gers arch-rivals and has also been sent off in his last two appearances at Parkhead – albeit the last time did come at the very end of an all-round solid enough performance from the Colombian.
All this noted, there is no doubt the ability is still there. Aside from anything else, Gerrard may simply be forced to start him. New signing Kemar Roofe, whilst a proven goal scorer, will just be returning from injury although he is available. Likewise, new boy Cedric Itten is still being bedded in despite his brace off the bench against Motherwell whilst veteran Jermain Defoe looks more likely to be used sporadically this season. If Morelos wants that big-money move, then he’ll have to perform and it’s these sorts of games that will have suitors around Europe willing to splash the cash. Fail to take that opportunity and Rangers know they have more than able back-up options.
It feels we write this in almost every old firm article we publish but there is quite simply so much at stake for both clubs. A win for Rangers could propel them forward in the title-race with only last year’s post-winter mishaps to put to bed; a win for Celtic, should Rangers be at their best, will likewise push them towards that coveted tenth title and put fears of nervy performances to rest.
So, with that, how are Celtic looking heading into the weekend’s fixture at Parkhead?
Well firstly, it’s Parkhead, so clearly in a more advantageous position than they will be later in the season when the two face off at Ibrox. However, without the cries from the Green Brigade and other Celtic fans echoing throughout Paradise, it’s unclear if that really puts the boys in green at that much of an advantage.
In terms of home form, Celtic have won all of their home games this season. In terms of form more generally, Celtic are unbeaten in nine games, winning eight of those nine, the only draw coming in the form of an away fixture to Kilmarnock (a team that Celtic regularly fall short against). They’re on a good run and vying for the historic 10 league wins in a row, they’re showing no signs of stopping. But of course, they’re yet to face Rangers this season.
The last time these two sides met at Parkhead, things did not end well for the home side, succumbing to a 2-1 defeat to the visitors ‒ the first time Rangers were victorious in this fixture away from home in nine years. Without the Celtic fans making their voices heard in the stadium, if there were ever a time for Rangers to repeat that performance, it would be this weekend.
Heading into the fixture, Celtic have won eight successive games, their last loss coming from a disappointing performance that saw them exit the Champions League to Ferencvaros. Having just secured a place in the Europa League, and only one point behind Rangers in the league (with a game in hand) it looks positive for Neil Lennon’s side. However, there have been a few teething problems. Firstly, James Forrest was ruled out of the fixture at the end of September after suffering a nasty stress fracture to his ankle and looks to be out for at least six more weeks. Striker Albian Ajeti also suffered an injury at the same time and missed out on the European fixture but should be back for the game this weekend. If it were only Forrest out for the match, there would be minimal cause for concern, but the winger’s injury has been the least of the team’s worries in the last week.
Just days before Scotland faced Israel in the Nations League semi-final last week, it was revealed that Stuart Armstrong had tested positive for coronavirus and, despite returning a negative test, Celtic front man Ryan Christie had been advised to self-isolate for 14 days. If that wasn’t enough, a few days earlier, Celtic’s joint top scorer this season Odsonne Edouard also tested positive for coronavirus whilst on international duty with France U21s. On top of both of those blows, this weekend Nir Bitton also returned a positive test whilst on international duty for Israel. So here we are, less than a week to go until the game and four players from the regular squad out of commission ‒ things could be better.
Equally, things could be a lot worse. Celtic have made some great signings in the recent transfer window. Albian Ajeti, who couldn’t manage to cement a place in the West Ham starting 11, has proved a force to be reckoned with for Celtic ‒ having scored five and assisted 1 already this season in only six appearances. Shane Duffy was a staple in defence for Brighton last season and has been a strong addition to Neil Lennon’s side ‒ scoring twice in only 5 appearances. Motherwell’s David Turnbull and most recently signing Diego Laxalt from AC Milan are another two examples of strong transfer business – the latter being a feature in TalkSport’s team of the tournament for his standout performance for Uruguay in the World Cup in 2018.
All in all, Celtic could be looking worse ‒ certainly the absences from key team members will be felt ‒ but if Celtic manage to secure a victory on Sunday it will surely cement their position (at least in supporters’ minds) as the strongest team in Scotland.