The 19-point deficit Rangers established courtesy of their derby defeat over their luckless adversary last weekend has led the Parkhead defender to concede he and his team-mates must win “pretty much all” of their 19 remaining league games to deliver a seemingly out-of-reach record 10th title.
Yet, even if they achieved that sequence, which would cover their three games in hand over Steven Gerrard’s men and the two remaining derbies, it might still not be enough. A Rangers team that have dropped only four points across 22 league games unbeaten, would probably also have to drop points in a further three games across their remaining 17 encounters to be overtaken by a Celtic side that would have to boast an unblemished second half of the season. Lennon’s men need snookers, big style, and the situation looks entirely forlorn. Except...the same appeared the case in the 2007-08 season.
In their eighth-last league game of that campaign in the first week of April, Walter Smith’s men had the opportunity to go nine points ahead of Celtic. A peachy position they earned through beating them the previous week, before Gordon Strachan’s side promptly threw in another loss, at home to Motherwell. It was then the European rigours that propelled Rangers to the UEFA Cup final, a run underpinned by the brilliance of a certain Allan McGregor, started to catch up with them. That seemed implausible on the back of the Ibrox side posting 16 wins and a draw in their previous 17 league games – a period during which Celtic spilled now fewer than 17 points – but a slide was then set in motion with a 3-3 draw away to Dundee United.
The straw clung to by the one-eyed optimists among the Celtic support is that European rigours are again a factor for the Ibrox men, and not their ancient adversaries, in the post-new year section of this campaign. The excellence of Gerrard’s men on the continental stage means they can be expected to prevail against Royal Antwerp in the clubs’ Europa League last 32 meetings next month. If they go much deeper into the competition – as they did in 2008 – they could be relentlessly juggling league, Europa League and Scottish Cup commitments across a punishing three-month spell.
Celtic’s recent revival suggests Ajer need not be overcooking his side’s capabilities in believing they have it in them to win the 12 Premiership fixtures – eight of these at home – they are scheduled to contest before entertaining Rangers on March 20 … the weekend following the second legs of the Europa League last 16 ties.
As Rangers were left gasping for air in being forced to play every couple of days towards the end of the 2007-08 league campaign as a consequence of reaching the finals of both the UEFA Cup and Scottish Cup, Celtic became oxygenated. Seven straight league wins – underpinned by two derby successes – eventually allowed them to edge out the Ibrox men for the title. It seemed then a cruel confluence of factors for the Ibrox men that would never be repeated. The eternally hopeful among the Celtic faithful refuse to countenance that, though.