Celtic are strengthening just at right time against resilient Rangers - just sit back and enjoy the show

This title race now feels like it’s going right to the wire and after absorbing Old Firm derby, the next few weeks promise to be engrossing

Time waits for no man in a title race. On the back of one of the best Old Firm matches for many a season, Rangers were back to work at their training centre on Monday morning preparing for Wednesday night’s game against Dundee. A win takes them top of the Premiership table with six matches to go. Celtic do not play again until Saturday but one suspects a strenuous week at Lennoxtown. This is the business end of the season, after all.

Both Rangers manager Philippe Clement and his Celtic counterpart Brendan Rodgers appeared satisfied with their lot after Sunday’s 3-3 draw at Ibrox. For the hosts, trailing 2-0 at half time and then 3-2 after 86 minutes, avoiding a defeat is a huge positive. It is likely Celtic would have settled for a draw at the start of the match, given they were faced with a cauldron-like Ibrox with no away fans. They have yet to be defeated by Rangers this season and the final derby of the season takes place at Parkhead, with only those of a green-and-white persuasion permitted to attend.

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Rodgers and his players know that by the time they kick off against St Mirren at home on Saturday, Rangers could be two points clear of them. Wednesday’s game-in-hand against a Dundee team trying to secure their top-six spot is not a foregone conclusion for the Gers, especially on a pitch that required two inspections at the weekend. More rain is to fall on Tayside over the next 48 hours. But Rangers dismantled Dundee 5-0 on their last visit in a pyro-fuelled encounter and should be too strong for Tony Docherty’s team, who showed substantial frailties by chucking away a two-goal lead against Motherwell on Saturday to lose 3-2.

Celtic played well at Ibrox and escaped a hostile environment with a point.Celtic played well at Ibrox and escaped a hostile environment with a point.
Celtic played well at Ibrox and escaped a hostile environment with a point.

Clement’s players have shown they have the courage and temperament for the big occasion. The Belgian’s half-time team-talk and personnel switches proved pivotal in Rangers’ turning the tables against Celtic after being completely outclassed in the first 45 minutes. This team knows how to dig deep despite its limitations, with captain James Tavernier a perfect example. Roasted by Daizen Maeda in the first half, the right-back recovered to score a pressure penalty and spur his team on to two comebacks.

The title race has a helicopter-Sunday denouement written into its script – although this season, unlike in 2005, the final set of top-six fixtures will be played on a Saturday. Pencil May 18 into your diary. We don’t know the exact date of the last league Old Firm derby but one assumes the SPFL will schedule in for game-week 34 or 35. The police will not want the championship officially decided when the two teams meet at Celtic Park.

Officially is the key word here because while both Celtic and Rangers have tripped up against other teams in the league this season, the Parkhead showdown will be pivotal. Celtic defeated Rangers 2-1 at home back in December and the way the Gers threatened to collapse in the first half on their own turf must be of concern to Clement. Now with central defender Cameron Carter-Vickers back, Celtic are not as susceptible defensively. But it’s the midfield that must give Rodgers the most heart. For the first time in months, he has captain Callum McGregor, Reo Hatate and Matt O’Riley fit and available. McGregor did not start at Ibrox – Tomoki Iwata did well as his deputy – but Celtic bossed the midfield battle. Rangers’ winter signing Mohamed Diomande has impressed this season, but he and John Lundstram were powerless to stop Celtic’s three when they got motoring.

Thwarting them at Celtic Park will be harder. Rodgers, for all the flak that has come his way, still has a mightily impressive record in Old Firm derbies. These are the fixtures that get his juices flowing. In McGregor, such a huge influence on this team, he has a serial winner. Goalkeeper Joe Hart came out on the right side of the mother of all title races in 2012, when Manchester City pipped Manchester United to the Premier League crown in stoppage time on the final day thanks to Sergio Aguero’s winner against QPR. Pilloried by many, Celtic are still there and have responded positively to Rangers’ challenge, potentially getting stronger as all their key players regain fitness. Tavernier won’t really want to see Maeda again, and Nicolas Kuhn is finding his feet on the opposite flank. Adam Idah scored on his derby debut and has the gait of a guy who likes high-stakes moments. And then there’s Kyogo Furuhashi. Quiet at Ibrox, don’t forget his sumptuous strike at Celtic Park last time. Match-winners everywhere.

Rangers manager Philippe Clement roused his team at the interval to earn a draw.Rangers manager Philippe Clement roused his team at the interval to earn a draw.
Rangers manager Philippe Clement roused his team at the interval to earn a draw.

Do Rangers have the same armoury? It would take a bold person to argue Cyriel Dessers, Fabio Silva and Scott Wright – the three that started in attack against Celtic on Sunday – are in any way superior. Having Abdallah Sima back available will help, as the rangy Senegalese offers pace, power and composure. He will be a big player for them in the final matches.

After Dundee, it’s Ross County away in Dingwall on Sunday for Rangers. Then we await the post-split fixtures. Rangers are due two home matches and are likely to host Kilmarnock and Dundee should the Dee get there, with trips to Celtic, St Mirren and Hearts on the cards. For Celtic, they should have three home matches, of which Rangers and Hearts will make up two of them. Unfortunately for Rodgers, they are also due to visit Rugby Park – scene of a league loss and the Viaplay Cup last-16 defeat. Plastic is not fantastic for Celtic when it comes to that particular pitch in Ayrshire.

At this juncture though, it’s folly to predict what will happen in this title race. On the evidence of Sunday, sit back and enjoy it – we are in for some finale.



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