Twelve months ago, it was the fixture which provided perhaps one of the most misleading outcomes the Scottish Cup has ever thrown up.
Rangers’ dramatic penalty shoot-out semi-final victory over a faltering Celtic at Hampden offered the impression of an Ibrox side capable of going on to quickly make a serious challenge to their Old Firm rivals recent dominance of Scottish football.
Instead, it proved to be the high water mark of Mark Warburton’s tenure at Rangers and a watershed moment for Celtic, who immediately set the wheels in motion which led to Ronny Deila being replaced as manager by Brendan Rodgers.
As the clubs reconvene at the national stadium tomorrow, Celtic have been revitalised almost beyond recognition under Rodgers and are firmly on course for a historic undefeated domestic campaign.
Rangers are seeking their own rejuvenation in the initial stages of Pedro Caixinha’s managerial reign, with the Scottish Cup offering the Portuguese coach a chance to bank some early credit with the club’s support.
For Rodgers, it is already the third different coach he has faced across the technical areas in Old Firm tussles. He completed a hat-trick of wins against Warburton before having to settle for a draw at Celtic Park last month against a Rangers outfit galvanised by caretaker boss Graeme Murty.
Rodgers anticipates a freshness to the challenge posed by the Ibrox men with Caixinha at the helm but is supremely confident in the capability of his own team to solve whatever problems they face in the next step of their quest for a domestic treble.
“Rangers look as if they go more direct at times now,” observed Rodgers. “I noticed, for example, that Martyn Waghorn is taking long throws into the box. Pedro has come in and has his own ideas, ways of working and he wants to set them up in a slightly different way. They still look to play, they’re still open but they look a little more pragmatic and not maybe so keen to play short or pass it – they’re happy to go longer. Even though this is the fifth time we’ve played them this season and we know a lot of the players, we still make the same study and the same analysis as we did in the first game. We’re looking at the details and what we think we can exploit.
“It makes no difference to us. It’s just an observation from watching them, but we have an identity, we have a way of playing. It doesn’t matter what system we play, the style will always be the same.
“Last season in the semi-final, Rangers were high in confidence, top of the Championship and getting ready to come up. Celtic were in that wee phase towards the end of the season where just the timing and the moment was maybe difficult for them. Even though Celtic didn’t play so well they could still have won the game and arguably should have won the game. Rangers deserved to win it, but now it’s a different coach, different team, different mentality, as we’ve seen throughout the season. Are we ready? We’ve been ready since the first game of the season, so no change for us. We expect a tough game and we’ve all seen these games over the years. Whatever the form has been of the teams doesn’t matter, you still have to perform and my players have shown many times this season, in pressure moments and pressure games, that they can deal with that.
“The players have been absolutely magnificent. The way they’ve approached games, their appetite to learn and to work. There have been so many measures and landmarks along the way. Any wee setbacks that they’ve had, which have been in the Champions League, they’ve bounced straight back and performed. They are hungry to succeed. That’s what we’ve tried to really focus on this year – that relentless quest to improve and be better and to win. It’s the final trophy on our list, It was one of our goals to win the Scottish Cup. We’ve achieved a number of our goals we set out to in order to achieve this one. We have two games to go and this is the most important one because it’s the next one.”
Rodgers, pictured, met Caixinha for the first time on Thursday night when both men attended the Glasgow Cup Final at Firhill between the clubs’ under-17 teams, Celtic winning 2-1. Earlier in the day, Caixinha had told reporters he would name his side in advance of tomorrow’s game if Rodgers agreed to do the same.
“He’s come into Scottish football at an interesting time and he’s looked to put his stamp on it,” smiled Rodgers. “Let’s see if he gets my team right! He’s a nice fella to be fair – we spoke briefly at half-time at Firhill. I told him it’s a great job but he already knows what Celtic’s about because he worked for the club [as a scout] for three years. I’m sure he’s a football guy and a passionate guy and he’ll look forward to the game at the weekend.”