Flipping mood music at Celtic Park suggests Rangers face a real fight to hold onto their crown
It is proving to be a wholly pertinent phrase in assessing an increasingly intriguing opening to the 2021-22 campaign for both Old Firm teams.
Gerrard’s opposite number Ange Postecoglou has most certainly flipped the mood at Celtic where the grim sense of foreboding which gripped their supporters just a couple of weeks ago has been replaced by a heady feeling of optimism.
As they trooped out of Celtic Park on Sunday, having witnessed an exhilarating display from Postecoglou’s team in the 3-2 Premier Sports Cup victory over Hearts, those punters were infused by a growing belief that something special might just be stirring under the Australian coach.
Celtic’s sudden surge in form, with 16 goals scored in winning their last four games, won’t have gone unnoticed on the other side of the city. Neither will it be causing any significant disquiet at this stage of the season for the reigning Premiership champions who returned to a more recognisable version of themselves last Friday night with a fluent and ruthless 5-0 demolition of Dunfermline at Ibrox to take their place in the last eight of the Premier Sports Cup.
But Gerrard and his coaching staff will recognise that they may face a sterner challenge in defending their league title than the majority of observers had anticipated.
The first Old Firm showdown of the campaign at Ibrox on August 29 now promises to deliver a fascinating indicator of just how closely contested the battle for the domestic crown will be. With this season’s Premiership winners all but guaranteed direct qualification into the group stage of the 2022-23 Champions League, the stakes could not be higher.
Before they lock horns in Govan at the end of the month, Gerrard and Postecoglou have other important business to take care of.
While European group stage football is assured for both clubs, their task in the aftermath of their respective eliminations from the Champions League is to ensure it happens in the Europa League rather than the new third-tier Conference League.
Celtic will now fancy their play-off round chances against AZ Alkmaar, with the Dutch side in Glasgow for the first leg on Wednesday, while Rangers should be more than capable of forging a winning position in their tie against Armenian champions Alashkert at Ibrox on Thursday.
Before the second legs next week, Celtic have another home game in the Premiership against St Mirren on Saturday while Rangers face Ross County in Dingwall 24 hours later.
Recruitment could hold the key
It won’t simply be results on the pitch before the end of August which help form the direction of travel for both clubs in the weeks and months to follow. The business they conduct in the transfer market before the window shuts on August 31 is also likely to be pivotal.
Postecoglou is looking to add to the five senior additions (Liel Abada, Kyogo Furuhashi, Carl Starfelt, Joe Hart and James McCarthy) he has made to his first team squad since arriving at Celtic.
Defensive reinforcements, most notably in the full-back positions, are a priority. Depending on whether Odsonne Edouard is sold or sticks around to see out the remaining year of his contract, a new striker could also be on Postecoglou’s wish-list.
For Rangers, most of the intrigue surrounds whether they will try to cash in on one of the established members of Gerrard’s title-winning squad after missing out on the financial rewards which would have come their way with Champions League progress. The reverberations of that dismal 4-2 aggregate defeat against Malmo in the third qualifying round could be felt around Ibrox for some time to come.
Gerrard, however, could take encouragement from Rangers’ immediate response to that painful setback. Although Dunfermline were tame and naive opponents on Friday night, there was an undoubtedly impressive zip and fluency to the Ibrox team’s play.
Having asked for more ‘snap’ in their work, that’s exactly what Gerrard got - especially in the attacking third of the pitch where Ianis Hagi, Scott Wright and Kemar Roofe combined to devastating effect at times. The outstanding contributions of young full-backs Nathan Patterson and Calvin Bassey would also have given Gerrard plenty to think about.
Interestingly, the system being deployed by Postecoglou at Celtic is not too dissimilar to the 4-3-3 formation largely preferred by Gerrard.
Against Hearts on Sunday, the midfield trio of Callum McGregor, David Turnbull and Tom Rogic ensured a relentless flow of attacking intent which the front three of James Forrest, Edouard and the excellent Furuhashi thrived upon.
But while former England international Hart is already bringing greater presence and authority to the goalkeeping position, Celtic’s defence remains unconvincing as evidenced by Carl Starfelt’s sloppy concession of the penalty which gave Hearts brief hope of a comeback.
With just two clean sheets in his seven games in charge so far, it’s an area which requires improvement if the attacking prowess of Postecoglou’s side is not to be undermined in the longer term.
Rangers have also had defensive issues - just two clean sheets in their five games so far - and a return to the remarkable stability of last season is needed to fully recapture the momentum Gerrard seeks.
On current form, a goalless draw is certainly the least likeliest of all outcomes when the Glasgow giants confront each other in 13 days’ time. However their moods flip on that particular day, it is already shaping up as a classic.
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