They met in the Scottish Cup at the weekend but do so again this weekend as Graham Ruthven analyses
Already renowned as something of self-professed tactician, Rangers manager Pedro Caixinha took the empty water glasses in front of him and attempted to explain why his team had lost yet another Old Firm derby, using the pawns to illustrate his failed grand plan. It was a moment that verged on parody, but the Portuguese was trying to show why Celtic had come out on top.
In reality, however, no water glasses were needed to demonstrate why the Hoops progressed to the Scottish Cup final at the expense of their great rivals, comfortably winning 2-0 thanks to goals from Callum McGregor and Scott Sinclair. Rangers just aren’t good enough to get near Brendan Rodgers’ record-breaking treble chasers, no matter the tactical game plan.
That is the unfortunate truth for any Rangers manager at present, whether that be Caixinha or Mark Warburton. They just don’t possess the quality to match Celtic player for player. Rodgers can call on the likes of Moussa Dembele, arguably the most in-demand young striker in Europe right now, Stuart Armstrong, the most improved player in Scotland this season, and Kieran Tierney, the teenage left back interesting the Premier League elite. Rangers have Kenny Miller.
On the basis of the Scottish Premiership table, the Ibrox club aren’t even the second best team in the country, with Aberdeen currently nine points clear of Rangers in third place. Such is the nature of the rivalry between the two clubs, one will always be used as a measure for the other, but that in no way helps Caixinha right now.
Celtic barely broke a sweat in swatting aside Rangers last weekend, with the two sides set to meet again on Saturday. Logic suggests Rodgers’ side will once again have no trouble in seeing off their rivals, but there is hope for Caixinha and his players. This might be their best chance of doing what nobody has managed to do in Scotland this season - toppled Celtic.
While Celtic remain on course to clinch a treble of trophies, recording an unbeaten domestic season in the process, they haven’t been at their best in recent weeks. Of course, they’ve still been good enough to see off the majority of opponents, but it’s been a while since Celtic truly blew away a team like they were doing with regularity earlier in the campaign (with the exception of the 5-0 win over Hearts earlier this month).
This could be the consequence of Rodgers rotating his squad after their clinching of the Scottish Premiership title. That has disrupted the rhythm they had built up over the course of the season, as demonstrated in the 2-2 draw with Ross County and the 1-1 home draw with Patrick Thistle. By giving chances to young players, affording opportunities to fringe figures, Celtic have opened up a vulnerability.
Of course, those young players and fringe figures are unlikely to feature at Ibrox on Saturday, but Rangers will hope that a recent lack of sharpness will result in a below par performance. That is all Rangers can hope, that Celtic leave their best form at home, because if they don’t the result will be a foregone conclusion.
Rangers have improved somewhat under Caixinha, with the 3-0 away win over Aberdeen a couple weeks ago the best result and performance they have turned in all season. They must reach that level if they are to even come close to challenging Celtic this weekend. Even then it might not be enough.
Perhaps Caixinha should have a word with Graeme Murty before Saturday’s clash. He got closest to overcoming Celtic in his short stint as interim head coach, leading Rangers to a 1-1 draw at Celtic Park last month. His game plan rattled the hosts in a way few teams have this season, putting the Hoops on the back foot for much of the match. They could do with some more of that.
Tactics can only take this Rangers team so far, though. They are still a long way short of the top of Scottish football and recent Old Firm derbies, including the one at Hampden last week, have exposed this. This Saturday may represent Rangers’ best chance of beating Celtic this season, but that still doesn’t mean it’s a good chance.