Rangers meet Celtic in the first Old Firm meeting of the season at Ibrox on Saturday at noon. Form often goes out of the window when it comes to derby matches in football but such is Celtic’s dominance of the Scottish game they will be clear favourites.
Since Brendan Rodgers took over, Celtic are unbeaten domestically. They have defeated their neighbours on five out of six occasions. This included two 5-1 thrashings along with two cup semi-final victories on their way to a first treble since the 2000-01 season.
Rangers looked to tighten the gap in the summer outspending their rivals and bringing in 11 new players. However the recent form of the two sides suggests the league will be another whitewash for Celtic.
Rangers are already lagging five points behind and looking like they will have to fight it out with Aberdeen to claim 2nd place having dropped points to Hibernian, Hearts and Partick Thistle.
In an interview with The Telegraph, Rodgers downplayed the difference between the teams, suggesting what Rangers had spent in the summer was evidence that they would be aiming to challenge for the title.
Portuguese manager Pedro Caixinha has acquired more experience and strengthened the squad, making Rangers the most likely Scottish side to take points off Celtic. They were one of four teams to do so last season, whilst 2nd placed Aberdeen were beaten in every match they played against the champions.
The fixture remains one of the most recognised and passionately played and supported football derbies on the planet and despite the recent gulf in class there will still be a raucous atmosphere on Saturday.
Scottish football relies on the Old Firm to keep interest globally, especially as both clubs are struggling on the European stage. Rangers were embarrassingly dumped out of Europa League qualifying by Progrès Niederkorn of Luxembourg while Celtic, although progressing admirably to the Champions League group stage, were humbled 5-0 by Paris Saint-Germain in their opener.
Despite their European failings, Celtic haven’t let the disappointment affect their domestic form as they showed by trouncing Ross County, and then Dundee by four goals to nil after the PSG game.
These victories took their unbeaten run to an astonishing 56 games in Scottish football, an unprecedented achievement that Rangers will be looking to end.
Saturday will see the potential returns of Jozo Simunovic and Moussa Dembele for Celtic. Dembele was the centre piece of Celtic’s attack last season and was particularly lethal versus Rangers. The Belgian scored five times against The Gers, including a hat-trick in his Old Firm debut, becoming the first player to score a hat-trick in an Old Firm league fixture since 1966.
His return will make it even harder for Rangers to steal some points off their utterly dominant rivals. One player who will need to perform if the hosts are to pull off an upset is striker Alfredo Morelos. The summer signing is the top scorer in the division with six goals and Celtic’s defence will have to be aware of the danger he poses. The return of Simunovic will help in this department.
The free scoring and utterly dominant Celtic will be expected by most to dispose of Rangers on Saturday. For the hosts, perhaps an intimidating atmosphere and an intense performance at Ibrox could lead them to upset their arch-rival and end their unbeaten run.
This rivalry is one of the biggest in Europe and a competitive Old Firm is healthy for Scottish football if it is to succeed worldwide. And on Saturday, Rangers will be looking to make the historic rivalry less one-sided.
Image courtesy of Geoffrey Hammersley