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Celtic go into the final Glasgow derby of the season as champions-elect. On paper it’s a total dead rubber; on grass it’s an opportunity to get some revenge and lay down a marker for next season.
The long wait to lock down the 2018/19 Scottish Premiership ended for Celtic in joyous relief (or relieved joy, if you prefer) last weekend at Pittodrie. A solid 3-0 win finally delivered eight in a row, and now all attention shifts to the Cup final and a potential unprecedented three trebles in three seasons.
If the next fixture for Celtic after securing the title were, say, a mundane away to Hibs or home to Kilmarnock, it would be slippers for the first team and a chance for some reserve players to get much-needed match time. One or two youth players would be named in the side, rewards for their performances during the season. (And, I suspect, the champions would walk onto the pitch through a guard of honour). None of that will likely be the case on Sunday, as there’s never anything mundane about this fixture.
Rangers’ inconsistency this season have made them a difficult team to suss. What are they about? They have a more-than-capable attack and have in fact scored four more goals than Celtic, although seventeen penalty awards slaps a big old asterisk next to that stat. Their form since the 2-1 loss at Parkhead has been excellent, with five wins from five and only one goal against in that stretch. And they will no doubt be looking at this fixture as their cup final, to avenge the serious humiliation they felt in the last meeting. However, they are a disciplinary nightmare and nothing is ever guaranteed for them.
Steven Gerrard will no doubt be using Liverpool’s Champions League comeback in his prematch team talk – creative as usual – but this Rangers team does not typically play well in the spotlight of expectations. Two losses in the cup competitions to Aberdeen and the inability to close the gap on Celtic may reveal a lack of bottle; thinking back to the Motherwell playoff, the 2016 Scottish Cup final, and repeated derby humilations, one could be forgiven for believing that the newco are simply just a bunch of shitebags. Expect the typical flying-out-the-traps start from them, some unpunished violence, and then… who knows?
Stats & Facts
- Celtic have taken points from 34 of the last 50 derbies, winning 11 of the last 14.
- The Hoops’ three goals on Saturday snapped a nine-match Premiership streak of scoring two goals or fewer.
- Since getting knocked out of the Europa League on 13 December, Rangers have only lost two league matches.
- Celtic are unbeaten in sixteen straight.
- Rangers have only lost once at Ibrox this season (0-1 to Aberdeen in December).
Last Five Meetings
|Mar’19||Celtic – Rangers 2-1||Premiership|
|Dec’18||Rangers – Celtic 1-0||Premiership|
|Sep’18||Celtic – Rangers 1-0||Premiership|
|Apr’18||Celtic – Rangers 5-0||Premiership|
|Apr’18||Celtic – Rangers 4-0||Scottish Cup|
How does the Ibrox manager set his stall out for Sunday? At the back, it’ll be the first start for keeper Wes Foderingham since February 16, and only his seventh appearance all season. He’s starting because last week against Hibs, Allan McGregor committed what was both the most villainous and hilarious of his many, many moments of madness this season and was (this time, finally) sent off. I suspect he just couldn’t be arsed to play on Sunday, and in the grand tradition of Joey Barton and Bruno Alves before him, shat it.
Aside from the change in keeper for this one, and forced changes due to suspensions following the March derby, Rangers have been playing a fairly settled lineup of late. They’ve been duly rewarded, with five wins on the spin and 12 goals scored with only one in that stretch. The interesting question for me is the status of Alfredo Morelos and Daniel Candeias. The two were both signings from the previous Ibrox regime, and are prime candidates to move in the off-season. Neither player has ever seemed to reach peak staunchness and it’s possible they’ve started their last matches in Scotland.
All the talk about Celtic resting the first team because the fixture “doesn’t matter” is ridiculous. It absolutely does matter, and Neil Lennon will take it as seriously as last week when he fills out his team sheet.
I’ve been a critic of some of Neil Lennon’s decisions since he took over in the big chair, so credit where credit is due. Coach Neil made good decisions last Saturday; starting Timothy Weah for a bit of a different look, and getting a solid second-half performance from a team that had been lacking in that department. Barring a late surprise, most of his first-team best eleven has been apparent for some time now, and all are said to be healthy for the clash at Ibrox.
There are still some decisions for Lennon to make and to consider as Sunday noon draws closer. Would Oliver Burke be a better choice than Weah (or Sinclair)? I felt that Weah got pushed around by Aberdeen, especially in the first half. Although he’s not played lately, Burke’s pace and physical presence, as well as his ability to get onto a ball played over the top of a high press, would be a big asset for Celtic. It also may be his last major opportunity to show himself in the shop window for next season.
Another consideration for the gaffer is how to handle Kieran Tierney. Although no one outside the club really knows his status, a double hernia has been mentioned, and he hasn’t looked his best for some time now. He’s the kind of player who would literally want to play in a big fixture with a broken leg, but a jab and a couple of those nice pills only gets you so far. While pain can be managed, and it might not be a risk for him in terms of aggravating the hernia, there is an increased risk of other lower-body injury because of certain adjustments in movement caused by “playing around” the discomfort. Neil Lennon, in my mind, should take the keys away for the sake of KT’s future, give him a cameo appearance in the Cup final, and have him ready for the European qualifiers. Celtic will need him far more there than at Ibrox Sunday, where Hayes’ physicality will serve well.
(For those who still want to entertain the “B team” idea, here you go: de Vries; Hayes, Benkovic, Bitton, Toljan; Brown, Ntcham; Burke, Rogic, Johnston; Weah.)
Look Out For….
- Unstoppable forces: As noted above, Rangers’ offense has been solid this season, their many penalties helping them improve on their league-best 76 goals from 2017/18 with two matches remaining. Celtic have also outpaced last year by two goals already and it’s quite possible the lack of pressure after cementing the title will help decongest their attack.
- Immovable objects: Rangers seem to have sorted out a leaky back line of late, with four clean sheets in their last five, and they have halved the number of goals against from last year. Celtic’s defence has been one of the few bright spots during the Lennon II era, holding opponents scoreless in five straight. I suspect both streaks end on Sunday.
- The Referee: Kevin Clancy is rewarded for what has been a very shaky season with his first Glasgow derby, and you have to wonder how he’ll be able to handle such a potentially high-tension fixture. He doesn’t have the presence or the ability to handle flashpoints of a Madden or a Thomson. He will, however, have Tory MP Douglas “Red Card” Ross running the line – this is Ross’s third Glasgow derby at Ibrox in a row.
Rangers 1, Celtic 2
The original match poster is by Frankie Mitchell (@madebyfrankie). You can buy a print of this and all of Frankie’s other illustrations and drawings from her online shop – her work is also available on t-shirts, stickers and many other products.
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