The dust is still settling after Sunday’s epic Old Firm Scottish Cup clash but the question is already being asked: can Rangers challenge Celtic, as well as Aberdeen and Hearts, for next season’s Premiership title?
Mark Warburton’s side produced a few reasons to reply in the affirmative during a match with their old rivals in which they certainly matched them all the way in 120 minutes, and probably outfought and outplayed them. Rangers then secured a place in the William Hill Scottish Cup final against Hibs on 21 May with a 5-4 win on penalties.
It was the latest success in a recent period in which Warburton’s team have clinched the Championship title and lifted the Petrofac Cup. Many have reacted to the upturn in fortunes by declaring the Ibrox side will be title challengers next season on their return to the top flight.
But while many onlookers were impressed by Rangers’ high-energy performance, the Ibrox team did not do enough to convince Celtic defender Erik Sviatchenko that they are credible title rivals.
“No I don’t think they are,” said the Dane, who was a first-half replacement for Dedryck Boyata and scored Celtic’s first equaliser in the 2-2 draw. “At some stages they played well, at some stages we played well. So it’s difficult to say we don’t know what level they are.
“Credit to them but we need to focus on our own game and we are Celtic. And the one thing that matters is to look at each other in the eyes and say we can do this on our own and so we don’t need to think about everyone else.”
He preferred the explanation that Celtic were to blame for a below-par performance rather than Rangers being simply the better team.
“I would say so, of course, sometimes you don’t perform well but at some stages we really pressed them and showed what Celtic is about, pressing high and going up the field,” he said. “You saw them making mistakes and we had these opportunities we needed in the game, but sometimes they don’t go for our advantage.”
Sviatchenko has found a dissenter within his own team in the shape of goalkeeper Craig Gordon, who accepts Celtic will probably need to cope with an additional threat to their crown next season.
“I think Rangers will challenge us next season,” he said. “They are a good team, I’m sure they will add a few players too – as we will. But they are a good team.
“If we’d started like we did in the second half and in extra time, we’d probably have won the game. We gave them confidence and they passed the ball well.
“Their formation, their pattern of play is good. They are difficult to play against and we took a bit of time to work that out.”
Sviatchenko, meanwhile, was quick to lend his support to manager Ronny Deila, whose future is once again up for question after the defeat by Rangers, perhaps the least forgivable in a list of perceived failures. The defender stressed the aim is now to win the title as quickly as possible for the manager, who is expected to remain in charge until the summer at least.
“I will just say that, as a footballer, you need to be professional and need to be all behind because we are a unit because if you don’t perform as a unit then we’ll be just individuals,” said Sviatchenko.
“So it is the collective, it is the team that creates all the big things. And, at this stage, we’re all together in the same boat and we need to perform. So whatever the manager says, we will be behind him and we’ll need to create a good result next week and the next week after that. Then at the end we’ll have the trophy that we’re all really eager to get.”