Only muscle memory allows for Celtic’s hosting of Rangers this lunchtime to be presented as the sort of major occasion once guaranteed when these two institutions went toe-to-toe. Many have said as much this week, but Erik Sviatchenko can’t allow himself to feel party to a diminished version of a famous fixture.
The Celtic defender would be expected to talk up a derby that, come 12.30pm today, he will be immersed in – as he has been at regular intervals throughout his 14 months in Scotland. However, the fact it stands apart from all other domestic duties the Dane undertakes is demonstrated by the ability to conjure a number in an instant.
Ask Sviatchenko how many games he has played against Ross County, Hearts, Aberdeen or any other Scottish side and he would have to pause and mentally count. The 25-year-old doesn’t have to think for a second before venturing that today will bring his fifth experience of what he says is “always a big game”. “You need to acknowledge that and that the crowd [gives it] ... its own atmosphere,” he said.
The pair being drawn in the Scottish Cup semi-finals means they will meet six times this season. Last time that happened Holyrood became involved and ended up passing stupid laws. Brendan Rodgers has acknowledged that so many of these derbies in a nine-month spell was “not ideal” and can “water them down”, even if he believed within them the same passion and intensity would be brought to bear. Sviatchenko, by contrast, is very much of a mind that it is a case of the more the merrier.
“There can never be too many,” he said. “As a footballer, big games are what you want to be part of. For Scottish football to have six of these in a season, that’s really good.”
Not so good for Glasgow’s A&E departments, all too often. And not so good for Rangers, this season. The awful baggage that can attach itself to this fixture may be diluted because the two teams are in the same league in name only, being separated by 33 points. There just isn’t the same edge.
That is not to say zilch is riding on the game. An Ibrox side has never lost six derbies against Celtic in a season. The current team are halfway to that unwanted record after being beaten at Celtic Park, Hampden and Ibrox before the turn of the year. The gulf between the sides has been laid bare by Rangers’ inability to compete with Celtic for all but 25 minutes of the Hogmanay game.
“A 33-point gap is a massive gap and I did expect that personally [a stronger challenge from Rangers], but that’s football, anything can happen, as we saw with PSG and Barcelona on Wednesday night,” Sviatchenko said.
The Dane is honest enough to admit he would have expressed “surprise” if he had been told last summer Celtic would have a 33-point gap over Rangers now, “especially with what we experienced before the manager came in when we played them at Hampden”, he says – a reference to the Scottish Cup semi-final loss on penalties under Rodgers’ predecessor Ronny Deila.
A day that seems to belong to the dim and distant past, rather than ten-and-a-half months ago, owing to both the Rodgers effect and the slide of recently deposed Rangers manager Mark Warburton. Sviatchenko isn’t kidding when he says it was “different” then.
And with Graeme Murty as interim manager of the Ibrox men ahead of Pedro Caixinha assuming control, it could hardly be anything other.
“They were on a really high level and then the manager came, we worked effectively and hard to become another team, a different team, and now we’ve shown that even though we’re so many points clear, we still keep on pushing. Now it’s just about the winning mentality.
“‘Relentless is the word I would use. You just keep on having this focus. The next game is Sunday and it’s so important not to get into emotions, just keep our mind-set.
“It reflects on us in a good and positive way that the manager is composed and shows this positive arrogance I would say, it’s about having respect but knowing that you are good. We know that we are good players and that we are a good team because we have shown it in so many games. We need to have that at the back of our minds but we will always have the utmost respect for our opponents and we know they have also been doing well lately.”
The attitude Rodgers has fostered has allowed Celtic to cope with setbacks within games, as they experienced last week in the Scottish Cup against St Mirren, and when finding themselves a goal down last time out against Rangers.
“No-one thought St Mirren could even score against us before the game but they did really well,” Sviatchenko said. “But going into the second half, we still had the belief, there was no panicking, we know we’re good but that we had to step up. We’ve had that ability and when we have really needed to, we’ve flourished.
“Positivity keeps the momentum going. If you speak about it, if you want to keep a flow, these things will come to you if you talk about it positively.
“The luck will also come to you instead of you being afraid of it.”
Gone are the derby days that Celtic approached with fear.