The journey home from Russia was long and tiring – but although for Steven Gerrard and Rangers Sunday’s short trip across the city for the first Old Firm clash of the new season is infinitely shorter, the new ‘Gers manager will be fully aware that a hostile atmosphere awaits his team in the East End of Glasgow.
Eight weeks into the new campaign, the small division of the Light Blue legions of just 800 fans who will travel to Celtic Park will undertake the journey in a much greater frame of mind than they dared hope following their last visit back in April, when the Ibrox men suffered a heavy 0-5 defeat as their great rivals clinched the Premiership title.
With both sides having secured qualification for the Europa League Group Stages, it has certainly been a good week for both sides of Glasgow’s ‘Great Divide’ – although no-one would surely dispute that tomorrow’s visitors have endured a far tougher week than their hosts.
Rangers under Gerrard remain unbeaten – but it goes without saying that this one is the ultimate test for the Light Blues and their new manager.
Few would doubt that Celtic remain favourites with a settled team and home advantage – and the long, long road home from Ufa will certainly not have done the Ibrox men any favours.
Yet there is a steely determination and resolve about this ‘Gers team that offers the possibility that the tide may just be turning in Scotland’s balance of power.
Both Jon Flanagan and Alfredo Morelos are available for selection despite being ordered off on Thursday evening and Borna Barisic will surely return at left-back, whilst Lassana Coulibaly and Graham Dorrans remain injury absentees.
The real intrigue will centre on whether new signings Joe Worrall (on a year’s loan deal from Liverpool) and Albanian International winger Eros Grezda from Osijek feature, although it will surely only be as substitutes.
Notwithstanding the long journey home from Russia, Rangers are certainly fitter and stronger than last season – Steven Gerrard has to a considerable effect eradicated the defensive calamities of last season under both Pedro Caixinha and Graeme Murty.
The formation that the manager chooses to go with on Sunday afternoon will be an intriguing side-issue – having seen his defence concede three goals at Motherwell last weekend after he rejigged his back line the odds are that he will revert to the tried and trusted back four although it is possible that, with the availability of Barisic, he will play Flanagan in his more natural role at right-back and move James Tavernier forward to right midfield.
This game is to an extent a case of the student coming up against a former professor with Gerrard of course Liverpool Captain under then–Anfield Boss Brendan Rodgers.
Gerrard was a vastly experienced player – it remains to be seen just how much of that experience he can transfer to the dugout to help him upset the odds and his former manager at Celtic Park on Sunday afternoon.
If Rangers depart the East End of Glasgow with any kind of result this weekend then the dream will be well on the way to being fulfilled.