There is a tendency for Brendan Rodgers to affect keeping his powder dry whenever games against Rangers come around… as he cutely lobs a few firecrackers. The ability, or otherwise, of the Ibrox men to derive bang for their buck provided the pyrotechnics for the Celtic manager this week.
When it comes to Rodgers’ side travelling across the city for Saturday’s first meeting of the season between the ancient adversaries, no-one expects much of the hosts. The new-look side assembled by Pedro Caixinha following nine summer arrivals appears, on the evidence of their failure to win away to Partick Thistle on Friday, no more reliable than the Mark Warburton team the Portuguese coach dismantled over the summer.
Indeed, in dropping seven points across their first six Premiership outings, Rangers are only one short of the total Celtic failed to collect in the league across their invincibles treble-winning season of last year.
Next weekend then would seem to present a mismatch: a Champions League team – albeit one that can get an absolute pasting from Paris Saint-Germain – against a club that was making do with Scottish Championship earnings as recently as last year. However, for the benefit of all audiences, including his own board you suspect, Rodgers put it out there the other day that Rangers do top Celtic in one financial table.
“I’ve seen a little bit of Rangers,” he said. “Pedro obviously came in during the season and was able to assess and look at different methods in which they can try to work and play. They have clearly spent money in the summer. They spent more money than us – and we are a Champions League club.
“So that tells you that their idea is to win the league. It’s not to finish third. Not to finish second above Aberdeen. It’s to win the league.
“They have come into the season with that mentality. They have signed some good players and are playing a basic shape in terms of 4-4-2, nothing complicated, get the ball wide, crosses in the box. I’m sure they will be reasonably happy with how they have started.”
Progression is regularly spoken of by Caixinha and his players in terms of Rangers’ efforts, but it has been showing up less in results. In terms of transfer fees forked out, the reported figures given for the six players that Rangers have paid these sums on make for a near £9 million outlay. With only two permanent signings – Olivier Ntcham and Jonny Hayes – Celtic’s spend on transfer fees is around £3m lower.
Of course, it will be said that Rangers’ third-place finish, and their displays against the six-in-a-row title holders, illustrated the much greater need the Ibrox club had to invest in players than Celtic.
The concession of a late equaliser was all that prevented Rodgers’ men triumphing in the six encounters that ties in both cups necessitated. The meetings between the pair were bookended by 5-1 thumpings, the second of these the last time the clubs met. It came at Ibrox in April, one week after Caixinha had failed to see his side lay a glove on Celtic during a one-sided Scottish Cup semi-final that ended 2-0. The Portuguese coach refused to be cowed by that experience and the failure of his 4-4-2 system to deal with Celtic’s threats. In the second game of that double-header, he configured his team in similar fashion and suffered the same demoralising experience as Celtic opened up a 36-point gap.
Rodgers was asked the other day if he was surprised at how Rangers set up against his 4-2-3-1 at Ibrox that afternoon. “Not really,” the Irishman said. “A lot of the European coaches will have different ways. I’m not sure 4-4-2 is what Pedro would purely like to play. I think he is looking at what he’s got and how he can maximise what he gets from the players. I always respect every opponent. They played with a diamond, looking to have numbers in midfield and two front players. It’s flatter now in terms of how they are playing it. But their intention I’m sure is to win the league and what they have spent I’m sure is a mark of that.”
A mark of Celtic under Rodgers in the ultimate Glasgow grudge match has been their almost contemptuous pulling apart of their opponents – akin to what PSG dished out to the Parkhead side in Tuesday’s Champions League mauling. The derby destructiveness of last season reached its apogee with that 5-1 in April. As unconvincing as Rangers are now, they have a better standard of player this season which suggests Celtic might not be so many classes apart. Mind you, the fact Celtic will be seeking to feel better about themselves after that chastening European experience could make Rangers the team they’ll want to take their frustrations out on.
“I think in terms of personality within the team [the April derby double-header] was a great week,” Rodgers said. “We went into the semi-final and were outstanding – our performance level in every facet was very good. At Ibrox the feeling was that we would be under severe pressure from their play, the crowd, and there was no way we could go and play like we did in the semi.
“For the players to go out and handle that side of it and perform like they did and actually be disappointed we only scored five made the performance outstanding.”
The outstanding memory of that for many was Ibrox emptying of home supporters the moment Celtic netted their fourth through Dedryck Boyata in the 66th minute. “[When you see that] for every manager and player, it is a feeling that you are working well,” Rodgers said. “You are doing your job if the game is over by 65, 70 minutes. In a 90-minute game you can take huge credit for how you are playing at that stage.”
Rodgers recalls something similar when his Liverpool side beat Newcastle United 6-0 in April, 2013 and were four-up after an hour. “It’s a big stadium Newcastle so to see that happen you’re thinking ‘OK, we’ve probably won the game’. If you are going to Ibrox, doing that against one of the great rivals and performing at that level, which was key for me, was pretty special.”
A key to how the game will be remembered is on- and off-field behaviour. “For supporters it’s everything. There’s such a historical context so these games are for the supporters. That’s who you are playing for. I understand the feelings and the emotions in these games. You want them to be passionate and intense and aggressive. But it always has to be under control.”