Rangers still focused on ending season unbeaten as Celtic clash looms
When Rangers and Celtic meet for the final time this season on Sunday, it will be in circumstances which hardly merit a high noon description.
Yet if the outcome will determine nothing of real substance, there should still be no lack of motivation in both camps for the midday kick-off at Ibrox.
For Rangers in particular, the opportunity remains to complete only the fourth undefeated top flight league campaign in Scottish football history and just the second compiled over 38 games after Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic ‘Invincibles’ achieved the feat four years ago.
The challenge for their manager Steven Gerrard will be to rouse his squad from the disappointment of their shock Scottish Cup quarter-final exit at home to St Johnstone last Sunday and recalibrate their focus for the last Old Firm collision of the campaign.
With a yawning 20-point lead over the deposed champions and a Premiership title triumph wrapped up in the first week of March, Rangers’ status as the best team in the country is already beyond any rational debate.
But against a Celtic side who have one final chance to salvage a sliver of pride from their calamitous season, Gerrard will want his players to further underline the recent dominance they have established over their greatest rivals.
Not since the 1999-2000 campaign, when Dick Advocaat’s team finished 21 points clear of a Celtic outfit then in disarray under the ill-fated tenure of John Barnes and Kenny Dalglish, have Rangers gone through a whole top flight season unbeaten in Old Firm combat.
Gerrard’s own current sequence of five undefeated games against Celtic – four wins and a draw since losing the League Cup Final at Hampden in December 2019 – also sees him closing in on matching the previous longest such run enjoyed by a Rangers boss when Alex McLeish went six without loss from February to December in 2002.
While silverware is the only currency that truly matters for an Old Firm manager, compiling figures like those against the other half of Glasgow’s great divide can bank significant credit in the minds of supporters.
With the prospect of the league and Scottish Cup double having slipped from his grasp in such agonising fashion with the penalty shoot-out loss to St Johnstone, it will be fascinating to see how Gerrard approaches his team selection for the remaining three Premiership games against Celtic, Livingston and Aberdeen.
He is still likely to go as strong as possible on Sunday, but injuries may mean there are also opportunities for current fringe members of his squad to gain vital experience of Old Firm action.
Scott Arfield missed the cup defeat against Saints after picking up a knock in training, while Filip Helander limped out of the action in extra-time. It remains to be seen whether either or both of those players will be available to face Celtic.
Among those pushing hardest for a place in Gerrard’s starting line-up is Scott Wright, who made yet another lively contribution from the bench last Sunday.
The inventive and energetic attacking midfielder has consistently impressed whenever he has been given game time since joining Rangers from Aberdeen in the closing hours of the winter transfer window.
If Helander fails to recover in time, then it could also be the biggest day yet of Jack Simpson’s fledgling Rangers career. With Leon Balogun already ruled out for the rest of the season, Simpson is the only realistic candidate to partner the ever-present Connor Goldson in central defence.
Much of Rangers’ success against Celtic this season has been built on how effectively they have subdued their rivals’ strikers. Facing Odsonne Edouard or Leigh Griffiths on Sunday would be an informative examination of Simpson’s credentials.
As Gerrard begins to plan for next season, observing how players such as Wright and Simpson perform in a fixture like this could be a more than useful exercise.
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