Celtic and Rangers go under the microscope - what pre-season has told us about impending title battle
A comparative analysis of Celtic and Rangers in the here and now requires to come with more caveats than you would find at a caveats’ convention (there surely must be one somewhere in the multiverse).
Yet, with the kick-off to a cinch Premiership season sure to see Scotland’s two behemoths engaged in a battle royale for domestic supremacy only a week-and-a-bit away, the exercise is irresistible. Not least because it is one of our game’s favourite supporter/pundit parlour games. All this understood, and without further ado, let us delve into how the pair appear to be shaping up for a championship that should be thrillingly nip and tuck.
The latest (scant) evidence we have for the nick in which Ange Postecoglou’s title holders and Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s challengers find themselves is provided by their outings over recent days. Now, as opposition, the English Premier League’s seventh-placed finishers West Ham are several stratospheres above a Legia Warsaw that struggled to a lowly 10th in the Polish top flight. The fact, then, that Rangers registered an impressive 3-1 win over David Moyes’ men in their backyard on Tuesday before Celtic squandered a 2-0 half-time advantage to draw in Warsaw the following day tells which of the duo had the best of it in their latest warm-up encounters. It is crucial to dig deeper than the superficial, though, in assessing the clubs’ relative strength.
As fascinating as any aspect of their respective displays was that they re-affirmed what very different sides have been crafted by Postecoglou and van Bronckhorst. Celtic remain a free spirit. Their first-half swarming over their hosts with the superb Reo Hatate, Matt O’Riley and Callum McGregor engaging intoxicatingly high up the pitch to combine with wide men James Forrest and Liel Abada resulted in them creating opportunities agogo. Their potency in such spells is beyond what has been the norm for Rangers. What was interesting, though, was that van Bronckhorst’s men found that type of footballing fury when unleashing new signings Tom Lawrence and Rabbi Matondo at the interval the other night. The blistering, 14-minute, three-goal burst that the pair initiated - each providing a strike and assist - suddenly found Rangers attacking their tasks with the devastating abandon that is a credo for Postecoglou. It was notable that van Bronckhorst remarked on the fact afterwards. Applying such a killer touch when the mojo descends, he said (OK, he might not quite have used such terms) was how his team had to improve on certain league games last season. Specificially, the draws they suffered in conceding late goals after not making their dominance of possession fully count.
Rangers did that with knobs-on against the Londoners because they provided themselves with a platform through avoiding any knockdowns as the two teams shadow-boxed in the opening period. That was possible because, front-to-middle, the Ibrox side seem returned to a sturdy beast. On this week’s sightings of the ancient adversaries, much sturdier than their city rivals. As much as the club’s now record sale Calvin Bassey proved outstanding for Rangers in the final four months of last season - and was a pivotal player in their run to the Europa League final - his loss following the - potentially - £23m deal that has taken him to Ajax need not be felt as keenly as might be imagined. The retention of Connor Goldson could be key to that. He seemed to immediately have built an understanding with the composed John Souttar, while the £4m addition of Ben Davies in that area suggests that the Ibrox men will be well covered for backline security.
The situation is slightly different for Celtic. Without the injured Carl Starfelt by his side, centre-back Cameron Carter-Vickers has appeared a little vulnerable - in contrast to rarely doing so in excelling last season. Postecoglou, though he would no doubt dispute the fact, needs to edge closer to Rangers in exuding assurance at the bottom end of the pitch judging from how his side has performed across pre-season. A spell in which they have coughed up 11 goals in four friendlies.
Moritz Jenz and Aaron Mooy might only just be in the door following their arrivals this week, but both could be crucial components in that quest. Mooy can operate as a snarling midfield screener, while, with his pace and hulking 6ft 4in frame, Lorient loanee Jenz could help inject a physicality into Celtic’s defending that has sometimes appeared an area of concern in pre-season.
With £2.5m PAOK capture Antonio Colak having shown willing without suggesting he has inate predatory instincts, in the striking department Celtic appear to retain the whiphand. The return to full fitness of Alfredo Morelos - expected within three weeks - cannot come too soon enough for the Ibrox club. But even with this pair, Fashion Sakala and Kemar Roofe - if he stays - van Bronckhorst does not possess the attacking armoury Postecoglou can muster in being able to juggle Kyogo Furuhashi, Giorgios Giakoumakis and Daizen Maeda. Moreover, Rangers did not have a player utilised largely outwith the centre-forward berth that bagged double figures last season. Meanwhile, Celtic had three such performers in David Turnbull, Jota and Abada. It reflects that Postecoglou’s men hold the advantage when it comes to creativity and potency. Such as Lawrence and Matondo must step up - as required by Ryan Kent in the end-product stakes - to bridge such a gap. Especially with Joe Aribo having departed for Southampton. Fashion Sakala and Kemar Roofe - if he stays
What seems predictable is that the two clubs have assembled such squad depth they will sweep aside their Scottish opposition most weeks. Indeed, it is no bold prediction to state that Celtic and Rangers, with little to choose between them, appear in such imposing condition they will both post 90-point totals - not since 2004-05 has that happened. Which of them records the higher such total is likely to come down to the results in their derby meetings. And, in truth, we didn’t need pre-season form to tell us that.
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