The perception has been of a pendulum swinging towards Ibrox. As misfortune mounted for Celtic during the international break, so their visitors this lunchtime became more fancied for the spoils of the season’s first Old Firm encounter.
Punters began to pile money on an away win. Bookies responded accordingly. The odds on Steven Gerrard’s side repeating the success of their previous trip to Parkhead on December 29 last year have been trimmed.
With up to four players missing due to Covid complications, you didn’t have to look far for suggestions the reigning champions were entering this clash firmly on the back foot.
The chances of Steven Gerrard’s Rangers winning at Celtic on Saturday have been slimmed
The Rangers boss sparked wild celebrations as his side won a classic Old Firm clash last year
Pundits began to claim a Celtic victory in these circumstances could be sizeable psychological blow to Rangers. It has been portrayed as a prime opportunity for Gerrard’s men to seize a title initiative.
The Ibrox manager has heard all the talk. And ignored it all. Whatever team Neil Lennon fields today, whether or not Odsonne Edouard features after returning from isolation in France yesterday, Gerrard expects no less of a task than in any of his past seven Old Firm experiences.
He also points to Rangers coping with absences of their own. Ryan Jack proved his return to fitness with Scotland, but Kemar Roofe and Joe Aribo are unlikely to figure after several weeks out. New signing Bongani Zungu also remains in quarantine after his loan move from French outfit Amiens.
Gerrard (right) saus he is not focused on whether Neil Lennon (left)’s Celtic are favourites
Asked if too much was being made of the narrative around Celtic’s predicament, Gerrard said: ‘I don’t listen to that in all honesty. I don’t get involved in who the bookies’ favourites are and blah, blah, blah.
‘We have missed three really important starters for close to a month in Ryan Jack, Joe Aribo and Kemar Roofe. We probably won’t have two of them available.
‘These challenges come up throughout a season at different times. We have faced them before and I’m sure we will in the future.
‘We are all living through the Covid challenge at the moment. All kinds of clubs have had different challenges with it and unfortunately it is not going to go away in the near future.
Rangers could be without the injured Ryan Jack (right) and Joe Aribo (left) on Saturday
‘It is what it is. We all have to get on with it and move forward. But I don’t listen to the noise around who’s the favourites and who’s not the favourites.
‘Normally, the team that gets the small details right and carries out their game plan best comes out victorious. I don’t think that is going to change tomorrow either.’
Smart managers always tend to curb the expectations of their more excitable fans. Gerrard is no different in that respect, yet he will understand the voluble consequences of defeat.
The intense emotions always prompted by Old Firm games have been ratcheted up to the max by Celtic’s pursuit of ten-in-a-row.
Stopping them will require more than derby success. Rangers need only look back to last season for confirmation of that. Even so, victory would frank a positive start that has earned Europa League group-stage qualification and eight wins from ten Premiership outings.
Rangers lead Celtic by a point in the league table, though the champions have a game in hand
So far, that has been enough for a one-point lead in the standings. Celtic, though, hold a game in hand. For all the talk of Rangers being in more fluent form, the eight-match winning streak for Lennon’s men is longer than any assembled in Gerrard’s reign.
To break that sequence, the Ibrox side will likely have to summon a performance every bit as effective as the one produced in Glasgow’s east end ten months ago.
‘For myself and the players, we can certainly tap in to that experience but I don’t think it gives us any other advantage, really,’ said Gerrard, reflecting on the December 29 win.
‘It’s a different game, a new challenge. Celtic have strengthened again in a couple of windows since. Personnel can be different. Game plans can be different.
Rangers won the last Old Firm league game 2-1 on December 29 at a toxic Celtic Park
‘Listen, it’s going to be a tough game. I think the last one was the first time we had won there in a decade. I think that says how tough the fixture is. I think it was also the last time they lost domestically.
‘Celtic are in good form. I’m reading they are not in fantastic form and they have got this player missing or that player missing, but they are a good team and a good squad. Whatever 11 they put out will be a difficult challenge for us and we certainly respect the challenge we are going to face.
‘But in terms of how we feel now compared to when I first came in, I think we have a group of players who are better now. We have a group who have more confidence and more belief that they are capable of going to venues like this and getting the right result.’
Gerrard needs to sort his midfield out which could include Ryan Kent (L) and Glen Kamara (R)
There are dilemmas for Gerrard to ponder. Jack impressed against the Czech Republic on Wednesday night, but a midfield trio of Steven Davis, Glen Kamara and Scott Arfield looked perfectly balanced in the Scotland man’s absence.
Arfield could potentially be shifted one forward to help Ryan Kent support Morelos — but that would mean benching Ianis Hagi. While the Romanian playmaker is not always centrally involved in games, he has impressive capacity for a defence-splitting pass.
It is not, however, the players on the pitch who will make this a derby like no other. The absence of 60,000 fans ensures that distinction.
Gerrard claims he would rather take on Celtic at a full Parkhead rather than an empty one
‘I’d much prefer there to be a full house and an atmosphere,’ added Gerrard. ‘It’s a big part of why I wanted to come up to Scotland — to experience the atmospheres and the challenges of both Old Firm capacities.
‘It will be unique, different and strange. I don’t think anyone wants to take part in an Old Firm, or watch an Old Firm, with an empty stadium. That’s not what the buzz of an Old Firm is all about. But it is what is. We all have to get on with it.
‘It won’t really affect the outcome of the game because both teams will be emptying everything they’ve got to try and get their team the right result. We’re no different.’