Would any Rangers player feature in a combined XI of title rivals?
One of Scottish football’s favourite parlour games is to compare and contrast the relative strengths of the starting line-ups of the two Glasgow football leviathans. It takes the form of assessing how many from each team would make a ‘best of’, essentially. As Rangers blitzed the title without losing a league game last season by a margin of 25 points, they dominated such an imaginary XI, with previously questioned players such as James Tavernier, Conor Goldson and Ryan Kent set apart from those in their roles across the city.
Now, it is difficult to make a case for a single Ibrox performer looking the better of any Celtic counterpart at present. As he demonstrated with a number of superb stops to spare his team more damage than the 3-0 inflicted on them at Parkhead, Allan McGregor remains a top class keeper. However, the 40-year-old has also made a series of high-profile errors of late while his Celtic counterpart has shown the command that made him England’s no.1.
Ange Postecoglou’s back four have come in for questioning, but the unit of Josip Juranovic - stunning both in attack and defence in the derby - Cameron Carter-Vickers, Carl Starfelt and Greg Taylor showed why Celtic have, by some margin, conceded fewest goals in the cinch Premiership. In front of them, the unit of Callum McGregor, the masterful two-goal Reo Hatate and Matt O’Riley dominated the error-strewn Joe Aribo, Glen Kamara and Scott Arfield. Meanwhile the numbers being produced by Liel Abada are stunning. Kent was a driving force for Rangers last season. In that, he netted 13 goals and contributed 15 assists across 4,255 minutes of competitive football. The 20-year-old Israeli Abada may not possess Kent’s trickery, but his derby goal means he has already netted 13 times this season, adding eight assists to his end product. Tallies accumulated in only 2,547 minutes. Meanwhile, Celtic’s two most lauded players of the first half of the campaign, Kyogo Furuhashi and Tom Rogic, weren’t even in situ as Celtic tore their rivals apart.
“The kind of leader people follow”
The ultimate compliment that Ange Postecoglou could shower on his courageous captain Callum McGregor following a first taste of derby success was that the Celtic midfielder was “the kind of leader people follow”. It was a commendation regularly offered up of his predecessor in the role for more than a decade, Scott Brown. So huge a presence was that old warhorse, so massive an aura did he project, that when he departed for Aberdeen in the summer, McGregor appeared to be on a hiding to nothing even to project a slither of what his mentor had in Celtic colours.
Already, though, McGregor’s influence - in an altogether more measured fashion - feels as telling. Both among his team-mates and within the Celtic Park stands, there was a collective feelgood generated by his willingness to put everything on the line and mask up to face Rangers - even as the bruising from a horrible facial injury sustained little more than a week before hadn’t even subsided. He set aside his personal traumas to set the tone with an immaculately controlled showing in the centre of the pitch to underpin the derby dumping. In an almost entirely new team, McGregor is the heartbeat, stablising the pulse of all around him.
Football with fans is everything
The energy-levels that zapped Celtic Park as if the pumped-up 60,000 crowd were delivering lightning bolts across the arena demonstrated just how much football occasions at their most life-affirming are a meld of the play and the punters. And just how much a poor imitation of the real thing was the pandemic-induced season behind closed doors. The white-hot heat generated by those willing-on Celtic from the stands was a monumental factor in Rangers’ wilting from the off. Rarely have waves of emotion been so wildly surfed.