|Venue: Ibrox Date: Monday, 2 January Kick-off: 12:30 GMT|
|Coverage: Commentary on BBC Radio Scotland, live text updates on the BBC Sport website & app, highlights on Sportscene|
It remains to be seen if Michael Beale is a champion manager, but there’s no question that the Rangers boss is a champion talker. Eloquent and interesting. Even Beale, though, must have had enough of the chat by now. The time for yapping is over. He’ll know that if his team lose to Celtic on Monday then the league is as good as over, too.
Most of the heat is on Rangers – and Beale knows it. Maybe that’s why he spent an inordinate amount of time love-bombing Celtic’s form under Ange Postecoglou in his press conference on Friday. Talk up the opponent, make yourself the underdog. It’s not exactly new-age mind games but he’s got to try something.
Trailing by nine points and by a whopping goal difference that effectively makes it a 10-point gap there’s no safety net for Beale’s team. Lose and they’re done. Draw and, well, they’re probably still done. A nine-point gap is a chasm when you’ve got doubts about where your own team is at, as Beale has, and when the team you’re attempting to pursue has won 18 of their 19 league games.
To put that into context, the Brendan Rodgers team of 2016-17 won 18 of their first 19 league games. Martin O’Neill’s side did the same 13 years earlier. No other Celtic manager has got this far into a league season with the same record as those three, including Jock Stein and his band of immortals who won every trophy they played for in 1966-67. They were the Bhoys with the Midas touch. Bertie Auld would have ridden the winner of the Derby that year if he’d put his mind to it.
In his time at Celtic, Postecoglou’s league victories have run the gamut from 1-0 almost all the way through to 9-0, with an 8-0 the only one missing from the sequence. Slackers.
It’s not the routs that have wrecked the heads of Rangers folk this season, though. It’s the other ones, the ones where it looked like Celtic were about to drop points and offer hope to the chaser across the city, the ones where they’ve toiled only to strike late and deliver another victory.
Two goals in the last six minutes to beat Ross County 3-1; a 90th-minute winner against St Johnstone; two goals in added time to beat Dundee United 4-2; an 87th-minute winner to overcome Aberdeen.
The galling thing for Rangers folk is that since a Filip Helander goal won the first Old Firm game against Postecoglou’s Celtic they’ve been largely outplayed in the league. Livingston have a better record against Postecoglou’s team than Rangers while the Australian has been in town (they’ve each taken four points off Celtic in in five games but Livi’s goal difference of -5 trumps Rangers’ -7).
Last season relegated Dundee scored more league goals in three matches against Celtic than Rangers have managed in five. Lawrence Shankland scored a 20-minute hat-trick when Celtic went to Tynecastle in October and thereby matched Rangers’ total goals scored against the champions across the last seven and a half hours of Premiership football.
Rangers have been hampered by too many injuries this season. That’s undeniable. Helander was a first-choice international centre-half but he hasn’t kicked a ball in the league. Just over a year ago, as a Hearts player, John Souttar starred, and scored, in a World Cup win over Denmark, but Souttar has played just one match for his new club. Ianis Hagi is a decent player but injury has claimed him as well. Kemar Roofe scored 10 league goals last season and 14 the season before but he’s only appeared twice. Tom Lawrence, who looked good in his early games, has only played five times in the league.
Rangers need some, or all, of these guys back but they also need new blood, a Postecoglou-esque revamp. Therein lies an issue. They don’t have the money for it and don’t have enough sellable assets to self-fund it. Celtic, meanwhile, found a manager wise to the opportunities in new markets. Postecoglou’s recruitment has been terrific, but the most momentous piece of business done at the club was the deal that brought him to Scotland in the first place.
This Rangers side, particularly in a central midfield that’s pedestrian, requires more creativity, presence and pace to make significant progress. Remember how Celtic’s tempo proved way too much for them earlier in the season. Six of the Rangers team that beat Motherwell last week were aged 28 and upwards. Four of them were in their 30s. Allan McGregor will be 41 at the end of January.
Man for man, you’d pick Celtic all day long on Monday, but within Rangers there must be a feeling that there is no tomorrow in the league if they lose. That desperation can give a side an edge, a rage for victory that’s hard to handle.
Home advantage is another factor, for sure. The games at Ibrox have been tight. The hammerings have all happened at Celtic Park, the 3-0 and the 4-0 that showed Postecoglou’s players at their effervescent best. If they match that kind of energy, movement and class then they’ll win. They’re just a better side. It would be unwise to ignore the Ibrox factor, though. That and the aggression that Rangers will surely have with their backs now firmly against the wall.
The aggregate score between Postecoglou’s Celtic and Rangers is 10-3. Nine of Celtic’s goals have come in the first half, three in the first eight minutes. Beale’s players have been warned. They know what’s coming. Knowing it and stopping it are two different things, though. Whatever the weather is doing, there’ll be thunder at Ibrox. That’s the one absolute certainty.