Celtic’s Brendan Rodgers looks for same old story against Rangers

Sone Aluko (left) is mobbed by his Rangers team-mates after scoring the opener against Celtic in a 3-2 win in 2012. Picture: SNS
Sone Aluko (left) is mobbed by his Rangers team-mates after scoring the opener against Celtic in a 3-2 win in 2012. Picture: SNS
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It is five and a half years since Rangers supporters saw their team defeat Celtic in 90 
minutes.

Even that occasion was essentially no more than an act of defiance by the Ibrox club, their 3-2 home victory in March 2012 coming in the midst of their darkest hour as they hurtled towards financial implosion and a four-year absence from the top flight.

The win that afternoon briefly delayed Celtic’s coronation as Scottish champions, the first of their current sequence of six consecutive titles. Apart from a penalty shoot-out success after a 2-2 draw in the 2016 Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden, there has been little from Rangers in that period to suggest they can bring a more competitive balance to what has become a generally lopsided Old Firm rivalry.

Under Brendan Rodgers, Celtic have mercilessly reinforced their superiority in a fixture they have lost only four times in the last 18 meetings.

Rodgers himself, of course, remains undefeated against Rangers or any other Scottish opponent as Celtic manager. Few observers – even those looking through the most optimistic of blue-tinted spectacles – expect anything other than his team’s remarkable unbeaten run in domestic football to be extended to 57 matches at Ibrox this 
afternoon.

It is a return to the scene of one of Rodgers’ most emphatic and sweetest successes from last season, Celtic’s record 5-1 win at the home of their oldest foes. It concluded a series of six Old Firm games for Rodgers which also began with a 5-1 win at Celtic Park and included semi-final victories in both domestic cup competitions.

The only slight blemish for the former Liverpool manager was a 1-1 draw at home in March when Clint Hill’s late goal earned a point for a Rangers side under the caretaker management of development coach Graeme Murty, shortly before he handed the reins over to Pedro Caixinha.

For the Portuguese coach, whose body of work since replacing Mark Warburton as Rangers boss has been far from convincing, today’s high noon showdown is the most significant examination yet of the sweeping overhaul of his first-team squad this summer.

Caixinha’s minimum requirement for this campaign is to finish second in the Premiership and notably reduce the 39-point gap which separated Celtic and Rangers in the table last season. Defeat today would leave Rangers eight points adrift of the champions after just seven rounds of fixtures, not the scenario nor rate of progress that Ibrox chairman Dave King would have envisaged when he sanctioned Caixinha’s extensive player recruitment drive.

Whatever the outcome of Caixinha’s strategy, his opposite number today believes he is justified in ripping up the blueprint he inherited from Warburton.

“I admire what he [Caixinha] is trying to do,” says Rodgers. “I always say that, if you’re going to go down as a manager, go down with your vision, not with someone else’s. So I admire him for that.

“I look at their team, some of the players coming in and I’m pretty sure he will be very conscientious in his work. He clearly wants to make a difference there. What is pretty clear is that he is going with his own vision and that’s all you can ever do as a coach or a manager.

“If it works out for you, great. If it doesn’t, you will be told and you can be happy enough that you did it the way you wanted to do it.”

Rodgers has noted significant differences in Rangers’ approach under Caixinha this season and is preparing his own team for a fresh challenge.

“They’re a bit more direct,” he added. “I felt when I first came up here that Rangers could build the game really well and securely from defence and work their way through. Now, they still open up and look to play – but the ball goes forward 
quicker.

“Their game is based around getting it wide and getting crosses in. They have good players. Graham Dorrans is a good player in midfield, Ryan Jack’s got experience of the league, the young boy [Alfredo Morelos] up front looks energetic. He looks like he can get a goal in the box.

“Then you’ve still got one or two other players beginning to find their feet at the club, boys like Josh Windass. So it’s a different test for us, another test, but one we’ll relish and look forward to.”

Rangers’ hopes of upsetting the odds haven’t been helped by injuries to captain Lee Wallace and the vastly experienced Bruno Alves, leaving teenager Ross McCrorie poised to make his full first-team debut at the heart of their defence.

By contrast, Rodgers has a fully-fit squad to choose from, with Jozo Simunovic set to return at the back and Moussa Dembele, scorer of five goals in Old Firm games last season, available to either supplement or replace Leigh Griffiths up front.

As ever, the midfield battle is likely to hold the key. For Rangers, the onus is on Dorrans and Jack to try to impose themselves as they experience the fixture for the first time and attempt to subdue the influence of Celtic captain Scott Brown, the man who so often sets the tone for the Parkhead side on these occasions.

“Any big game, Scott’s ready for it, not just these games,” says Rodgers. “He’s shown that over his career and certainly, in my time here, he’s grabbed games by the scruff of the neck – and that’s what big players do. Big players in big games make big contributions and he’s done that.

“He’s got that personality of an inspiring leader on the field and he raises the intensity, but you can’t underestimate his quality. For years he’s been talked about as a player who growls and snaps but there’s his level of possession, how he takes the ball and makes passes – he’s tactically very good.”

Celtic look to hold all the aces once again and Rodgers is understandably bullish about their prospects of savouring yet another derby triumph, even if not at their very best.

“The beauty of this group of players and what they’ve been able to foster is that they don’t necessarily have to be ten out of ten every week,” he added.

“It’s very difficult to play perfect football. But we have a game that allows us to be defensively strong, aggressive and what we’ve developed, cultivated over the last 15 months is the ability for lots of players to be able to score goals.

“So we can be a real threat going forward with good speed, good movement, good technique.

“Then you align that with a real work ethic and a fitness level – that makes us a difficult opponent.”