Rangers v Celtic: ‘The Old Firm game is not life and death, but it matters’

By Tom EnglishBBC Scotland

Venue: Ibrox Stadium, Glasgow Date: Saturday, 2 January Time: 12:30 GMT
Coverage: Listen on BBC Radio Scotland and follow live text commentary on the BBC Sport website and app.

History tells us that there were 66 victims of the Ibrox Stadium disaster on the second day of January, 1971. Sixty-six fatalities, for sure, but the tally of the stricken is far greater than that. Mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers, sisters and brothers, friends.

The 66 will be remembered at Ibrox on Saturday on the 50th anniversary of their death, but all of the others who were left behind to deal with the grievous loss of loved ones should be in everyone’s thoughts, too.

This desperate tragedy caused heartbreak to so many. Their sadness carries on, from generation to generation.

The footballers and supporters of Rangers and Celtic can only do so much; they can only bow their heads in contemplation of what happened then and in gratitude of how fortunate we all are now.

Covid has been a royal pain, but we still have this game to enjoy. It’s not life and death. It’s not the end of days no matter what happens. But in our own little world it’s important. It matters.

‘If Rangers play to form, they should win’

Rangers are 16 points clear at the top of the Scottish Premiership. Another win in a league season that has already brought 19 of them (plus two draws) and their advantage rises to a stratospheric 19 points.

Give Celtic three wins from their three games in hand (generous and presumptuous, perhaps, but let’s go with it) and the gap is still in double figures. That’s not insurmountable, but it’s getting there. A Rangers win and they become overwhelming favourites to take the title – and to stop the 10 in a row.

Their statistics are impressive. They’re scoring an average of 2.6 goals per league game. To put that into context, Brendan Rodgers’ Invincibles of 2016-17 recorded 3.05. That’s a very high watermark, but Rangers’ aren’t a million miles off it.

They’re conceding 0.2 goals per league game, a defensive stability upon which everything else has been built. Again a comparison with the excellence of Rodgers’ team – they conceded at a rate of 0.65.

This is impressive stuff. James Tavernier has 11 league goals and eight league assists. Kemar Roofe has 10 and two. Ryan Kent has five and four. Ianis Hagi, who can blow hot and cold, has scored three and assisted on eight others, numbers that outstrip Celtic’s most dependable creative force, Ryan Christie.

Rangers have powered their way clear despite modest contributions from their two main attacking weapons from the first half of last season – Alfredo Morelos and Jermain Defoe. Nobody would have thought a title tilt possible without those two firing on every cylinder, but it’s happening.

Manager Steven Gerrard and his coaches have put themselves in a glorious position. Their team are confident, resilient, dangerous at one end and stingy at the other.

A relative fortune has been spent on the squad but much of the outlay recently has produced results. The squad depth hasn’t been better in an age. If they play to form they should win.

‘Lennon has to get big calls right’

Much of the preamble has centred around Celtic. That’s understandable. Whereas Rangers have been stable and consistent, their rivals have been all over the place. They may have no fans at their games but drama has visited Celtic in a major way.

Neil Lennon is still standing. He’s shipped some brutal treatment amid this footballing soap opera, a storyline that has seen the manager, the players and the board come under verbal and physical attack from some supporters while performances and results headed south. It’s been mayhem this past while.

They’ve managed to calm things down in recent weeks. Celtic have won six games in a row, one of them a Scottish Cup final. They’ve had 16 goals and four clean sheets.

David Turnbull, finally trusted and delivering emphatically, has scored three in three. Odsonne Edouard – beginning to look like a player who’s interested again – has three in four. Leigh Griffiths, back in the team, also has three in four.

Their recovery is undeniable, but it’s a soft recovery. Clean sheets against Dundee United, Hamilton, Ross County and Kilmarnock does not make them a force in defence. They conceded two against Lille in the Europa League and three against Hearts in the cup final.

Only if they beat Rangers can you say that they’ve turned a corner and left their dog days behind them.

Lennon had to make a big call to get the bit of momentum that he’s got. That call was to use his captain, Scott Brown, more sparingly. Ismaila Soro has started the past three games and has offered more energy and more ballast than Brown has delivered in quite some time.

If Lennon reverts to Brown, as he did against Hearts, then it’s a big gamble. The Celtic manager has to get this one right.

He has some other calls to make. He may have to find a replacement for Christopher Jullien, who’s struggling to make it. At left-back he’s flipped between Diego Laxalt and Greg Taylor in recent games.

Laxalt has pedigree but his wish to go forward doesn’t always match his desire to get back when attacks break down. He tends to leave acres of space in behind him. Rangers will be keen to see who gets the shout on Saturday.

Taylor comes with no South American glamour and no World Cup experience. He’s also been talked down by supporters for not being ‘Celtic quality’, whatever that means. The reality is that Taylor is a more diligent defender than Laxalt, has assisted on four Premiership goals compared to Laxalt’s one, creates more chances and puts in more crosses.

Soro or Brown; Taylor or Laxalt. These are the decisions that could prove pivotal to the day while going some way towards determining the destination of the title and Lennon’s future at Celtic.

The last time these sides met saw Rangers storm Celtic Park. The home team’s insipid performance – not a single shot on target in the 90 minutes – drove their fans into an advanced state of apoplexy.

As a guide to Saturday, though, it’s of limited use. Celtic were without Edouard and Christie that day. There were also missing a few others who might have made a difference off the bench. This will be a fairer fight. The stakes are high. A compelling contest surely awaits.

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