Brendan Rodgers is savouring the prospect of formally “eliminating” Rangers from the Premiership title race on Sunday in a season when he feels the Ibrox club believed what he describes as their own “propaganda” about becoming champions.
That notion has long since been dismissed as Celtic have streaked clear at the top of the table under Rodgers and are now on the brink of wrapping up their sixth consecutive title win.
Going into Sunday’s Old Firm showdown at Celtic Park, Rodgers’ side are a massive 33 points clear of third-placed Rangers with 11 games of the campaign remaining.
While retaining the title has been a formality for several months now, it has not escaped the Celtic manager’s notice that Sunday is the day when Rangers can be arithmetically ruled out of the reckoning.
“I don’t think it matters if it’s zero points, one point or 33 points between the teams,” said Rodgers. “You’re playing for pride, you’re defending the culture of your club. We know that if we win the game, that eliminates Rangers out of it totally, but it doesn’t really matter. We want to continue with our focus on winning games and we’ll continue with that.
“They obviously thought they could win the league. Let’s be clear that when I came up here – after the Scottish Cup semi-final game which they won last season and their promotion – all the propaganda before a ball was kicked was that before the end of the season they’d be ‘going for 55’.
“I just think that was the message that was out there. It’s pretty clear that was the message but all you can do as a team is your own work and our players have been brilliant at that. I wasn’t surprised that message was out there (from Rangers) because I was new into it and I had no thought for it either way.
“So, they obviously had the genuine feeling that they could win the league. But we’ve just done our work, quietly prepared the team, the players’ development and improvement and it’s taken us to this point. There’s no more or less pride on Sunday. It’s one that could put us clear of them and we move on.”
Celtic’s superiority has not been in doubt since Rangers were swatted aside 5-1 in the first Old Firm game at Parkhead back in September. Rodgers believes his team, still unbeaten domestically this season, are even more effective now.
“There’s been quite a bit of improvement from us and there are still improvements to come,” he added. “That was early September and we weren’t at the level then that we are now. The beauty of the team and how it’s evolved and developed is that if you see it now, it can play virtually in any type of game.
“In a footballing game we have been dynamic and fast and scored goals, defended well, and when we’ve had to battle and fight in some of the games we’ve done that and come through it. When we’ve played teams that sat off deep we’ve found a way to play around it and get a result. When the spaces are there we have speed and power. So the dynamic in the team is good. When we’re not playing at our best we can still find a way to get the result. The notion of the team and the idea of the team is in a much better place and the team have confidence in how they’re working.”
Rodgers, though, is wary of widespread expectations that Celtic simply have to turn up on Sunday to secure a fourth successive win over Rangers this season. “That’s not the real world,” he said. “We want to do well and go out and get the result as we have done for the three games that we’ve already played against them, so we’ll be fighting and pushing to get the win. It is never easy – except in theory. It is never easy on the field. I am motivated to win the game. Listen, we could play really well and luck goes against us. But our thoughts are always in the set-up and to go out and win. This is the next game for us and we want to go out and do well.”
Asked about Rangers’ imminent appointment of Portuguese coach Pedro Caixinha as their new manager, Rodgers admitted: “I have never heard of him.”
He is well acquainted, however, with the Ibrox team’s caretaker boss Graeme Murty from their time together at Reading. It is expected to be Murty’s last game in the technical area since stepping up from his role as development coach to hold the fort following Mark Warburton’s departure last month. He has won three and lost two of his five games in charge so far but remains unsure about whether he will go on to pursue a longer-term future in first-team management.
“Graeme is a sensible fellow and I’m sure he will do well in his coaching career,” said Rodgers. “I’m sure he will be looking forward to it on Sunday. He’s at the stage where he’s only just into his coaching, having started at Norwich and then come up here. What he will see is the scale of it, being involved at a big club, and what the responsibility is and that you’re leading not just the team but the club.
“He will have gained a wonderful experience in these last three weeks or so from doing that and it’s a sensible approach. Enjoy it. Work it. Feel the pressure, see what it’s like. I always say when you become a manager it’s welcome to the land of no sleep, because it’s a different sport altogether. But whatever happens for him he’ll go away and be a better coach for it. Take your time, there’s no rush.”