It might be only Thursday, but did you know Celtic had already won this weekend’s Old Firm clash? Yep. Rangers simply can’t match up to Brendan Rodgers’ side and they’ll be lucky to get away with their dignity intact.
Well, if you listen to any of the ‘experts’ in the Scottish media anyway.
All that’s been said this week is how Rangers should use this first Old Firm encounter in the league since April 2012 to gauge where they are against the champions. Despite everything, this is a David & Goliath-type encounter. It’s like when one of the wee teams from countries with populations smaller than a mid-sized Scottish town get drawn against one of the big names of European football in the Champions League or the Europa League.
Of course, Rodgers has more than shown he’s worth the reported £45,000-per-week Dermot Desmond (or is it Desmond Dermott?) is shelling out to bring some great character to Celtic. Their narrow defeats to fellow European giants Lincoln Red Imps and Astana earlier in the season will have given Mark Warburton an idea of just what Saturday’s opponents are capable of.
In the 25 years I’ve supported Rangers, I’ve lost count of the number of times one side has went into an Old Firm as runaway favourites and there’s probably as many times the runaway favourite have dropped points, so there’s no point in writing EITHER side off yet.
Everything will depend on how both sets of players, and their managers, handle the occasion come Saturday lunchtime. If Warburton can get his midfield firing in a similar vein to last season, then Celtic could be in serious trouble as Scott Brown doesn’t have the legs anymore to cope with the high-intensity, pressing game Rangers were noted for.
Rangers might decide to go with only one of Joey Barton and Jordan Rossiter and it’s almost certain the former Manchester City and Marseille midfielder who will get the nod. Everyone will have their eyes peeled for the inevitable Barton and Brown clash, but Barton should be too clever to get drawn into any nonsense.
Niko Kranjčar has continued to look more and more like the player who impressed in the Premier League and the ex-Tottenham midfielder will be a key player. Technically, he’s head and shoulders above everyone in Scotland and his intelligence in the final third should create opportunities for Rangers.
If Kranjčar starts then it really needs a more ‘box-to-box’ type midfielder, like Jason Holt, in beside them to provide a link between the midfield and forwards. Saturday will probably be too soon for Holt (and maybe even Josh Windass) so it might fall to Andy Halliday to fill in there.
Halliday has impressed this season, even if he sometimes gets drawn into sitting too deep, and was probably one of the first names fans expected to see dropped this season, but he’s shown he can handle the Old Firm occasion well and, if he plays to his ability, is more than capable of thriving in that role with his constant energy and combative style.
Defensively, Danny Wilson’s enforced absence against Kilmarnock might just provide the opportunity for Philippe Senderos to make his debut. The big Swiss defender impressed against Linfield last weekend and manager Warburton has spoken of his surprise at Senderos’ level of fitness. Wilson and Rob Kiernan will probably continue to be the first-choice pairing in central defence, but Wilson’s injury might be viewed as too big of a gamble to take.
Lee Wallace should be fit after withdrawing from Scotland duty, although Lee Hodson is a more than capable deputy and James Tavernier will take his usual place at right-back.
Martyn Waghorn’s imminent return from injury might just see him thrown in on Saturday, but it’s more likely Kenny Miller, off the back of four goals at Linfield, Joe Garner and Barrie McKay will make up the front three.
Miller has a knack of scoring against them and, in what could be his last trip to Celtic Park, who would bet against him scoring another? Garner has shown he can score goals and, according to statistics, this Rangers team do create chances, so…
One last thought on the Old Firm. Which genius at Sky Sports thought scheduling the Old Firm and the Manchester Derby at the same time? According to a newspaper report, the Premier League receives around £33m per game whilst the SPFL gets £333k per game. Pep versus Jose? Who cares when it’s head-to-head with Rangers and Celtic.
Finally, it was sad to see former Rangers player Max Murray pass away earlier this week at the age of 80.
Murray, who was born not far from me in Falkirk, spent seven years with the club between 1955 and 1962. Signed from Queen’s Park, the centre forward scored a remarkable 129 goals in 182 games for Rangers before heading south to join West Bromwich Albion.
In 1956 Murray made a piece of Rangers history when he scored the club’s first-ever goal in European competition when he netted the opener in a 2-1 European Cup win over then-French champions Nice.