His mind is not on the gap between his Celtic team and the Rangers side hosting them tomorrow, says Brendan Rodgers. There speaks a man who can delight in what’s a chasm more than a gap between his champions-elect and their Ibrox rivals, might say the rest of us.
The Irishman sought to straight-bat most enquiries yesterday, no doubt determined to show the command of emotion so often decisive on the sort of frenetic derby day that awaits him on a first visit to Ibrox.
He provided an emphatic “no” when asked if he would love to see his team “boss it” there to demonstrate why they were so far ahead. It was about going and performing, he said. “I think we have clearly shown over the course of the season so far that we don’t need to have any propaganda.”
Rodgers took any possible sting out of being asked to respond to the contention that his team had “nothing to prove”. “We have a pride and we’re representing our supporters and in derby games it’s everything for them. We respect and understand that,” he said. But it was about continuing the “brilliant football” they had produced away from home, where they had shown the ability prosper when in a “fight” and required to “battle”.
Rangers’ apparent modification of their tactics of late didn’t induce any false stroke from Rodgers either. “We will analyse their game from last night [the 1-1 draw away to St Johnstone]. I haven’t seen any of the changes whatsoever. You’ll have seen more than me. I know Mark [Warburton] has a clear way of how he wants to work. It was maybe a little bit difficult at the beginning, because of the expectation that’s on them, but they’ve picked up some good results recently.”
Yet the Celtic manager could not resist launching a thumping hit over the boundary when asked to reflect on Rangers talking about the gap between the ancient adversaries narrowing as a result of Celtic winning only 1-0 in October’s Scottish Cup semi-final after their 5-1 success at Celtic Park the previous month – despite all indicators bar goals scored pointing to the victories being equally as emphatic.
“I never thought anything of it. When I came in here six months ago after the Scottish Cup semi-final everyone talked about how Rangers had beaten Celtic – and for sure played better on the day – and that they were ready to jump above Celtic. I take great pride now that six months later everyone is talking about this big gap. I’m not worried about the gap. I’m only worried about the development of the team and of the club.
“What that is through points, through dominance, through possession… I’m only worried about having dangerous possession, working well and winning games. What the gap is will always be for other people to talk about and write about, but for me I don’t have any thoughts.”
The reality is that Rangers need no more be in the thoughts of Rodgers when he surveys the league landscape than they were for Neil Lennon in his latter years, or immediate predecessor Ronny Deila. The two sides may now be in the same set-up but they are not true rivals for the main prize, so much has Rodgers advanced Celtic.
There is a certain irony in this current top flight being the least competitive in a decade – Rangers at that time struggling under Paul Le Guen – when there were moves to demean Deila’s title successes because he wasn’t up against a Rangers. Never mind that Aberdeen had accumulated more points at this stage of last season than Warburton’s side have in the current campaign.
The problem with Celtic being out of sight is that the edge associated with them playing at Ibrox is undeniably blunted, though the jokey contention that Rodgers appears to have robbed us of such tension because he has made his team too good was one he, not surprisingly not surprisingly, declined to go along with.
“Every game is intense, it doesn’t matter what the points difference is,” he said. “You are fighting for your shirt. One of the things I said to the players when I came in here was that they are defending the culture of the club. That is in every single game, not just a Celtic v Rangers or Rangers v Celtic game. You have a duty to defend the great culture of this club. Whether you are 16 points, possibly 19, possibly 22 in front it doesn’t matter; we have to fight.”
Celtic haven’t sparkled as Rodgers has used his squad to cope with the demands of December, a month in which they have faced seven league games against sides all then residing in the bottom six. None of these encounters could be described as a glamour tie, their opponents often setting out to be difficult to break down. It is doubtful that could be the Warburton way at Ibrox. Worryingly for Rangers, the need to demonstrate attacking intent at home could make them an opponent against which Celtic will have greater freedom to play.
“I think there will be more space for us,” said Rodgers. “We will play for the win, but whatever the result is for us, we know we can go and attack the game. If for whatever reason we didn’t get the result we want, we finish the game in an incredible position, we go away, we recover, we reflect on the first part of the season and we press the reset button to do better in the second part of the season.
“Like you have seen in the last number of games at Celtic Park, teams have come, organised, with different tactics, different ways of playing and we have had to show patience to break it down. I think the onus will be on Rangers to play. That is their game, they want to have possession of the ball. I am always worried about dangerous possession. I want my teams to dominate, but my focus is on being dangerous with the possession. Obviously for us with the speed of the team and the quality of the team if there is more space then that suits us.”