Alan Pattullo: Celtic better equipped this time to keep noses in front

HAVING led the league when it mattered in 2011, Rangers head into the new year after surrendering first position in rather deflating fashion.

The Ibrox side have sat at the top of the Scottish Premier League table for much of this season, but it was perhaps only a matter of time until Celtic got their act together. This they have managed over their last nine league games, with each one ending in victory.

However, not all of them have been completely convincing, including Wednesday night’s win over Rangers. Indeed, four of those nine victories have been by a margin of just a single goal.

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Yet Rangers have been stumbling for too long to hope that Celtic might not be able to take advantage. They have not looked at ease since early November, when Neil Lennon was the one tugging at his collar as things became uncomfortable for the Celtic manager. He seemed to recognise this with his comments and conduct on Wednesday. There was an absence of triumphalism in the Celtic manager’s comments, although all the major protagonists in Wednesday night’s fixture were, of course, alert to the spotlight being shone on their behaviour.

Lennon is also sensibly aware of the distance left to travel. If a 15-point lead for Rangers, albeit having played two games more than Celtic, can be overturned in nine or so games, then a margin of just two points can easily vanish over the course of the 17 matches which remain. Indeed, it can be overturned in the next round of fixtures, although given the opponents – Rangers face away specialists Motherwell at Ibrox on Monday, Celtic travel to take on current whipping boys Dunfermline – there again seems more reason for cheer in the east end of Glasgow.

As ever, great emphasis has been placed on the result of one Old Firm match. But, having failed to win any of the first three league Old Firm games of 2011, Rangers still lifted the title. Celtic, it will be recalled, came unstuck elsewhere, although there is little doubt that Lennon’s side appear well equipped for the task of maintaining their position at the top. Players are coming into form rather than finding that their powers have faded, while confidence, a key to consistency, is clearly high. Their rivals, in contrast, look unsure of themselves. Supposed reinforcements such as Juan Ortiz, Matt McKay and Alejandro Bedoya are nowhere to be seen.

Rangers’ healthy lead at the top has not been whittled down solely because of defeat at Celtic Park. Draws at Ibrox against St Johnstone and St Mirren are also partly to blame and are perhaps more alarming. Defeats on the road by Kilmarnock and St Mirren help expose a team battling with mediocrity, although victories in every other away outing in the league prior to Wednesday night has to be acknowledged. Ally McCoist has put a run of his own together in his rookie season as manager. Rangers strung together seven consecutive away wins at the start of the season. They have, though, lost three of their last four away appointments. It all points to a team having lost their way, temporarily at least.

All this is worrying enough for Rangers fans without the concern that they might also lose Nikica Jelavic, whose form was key to setting the pace so briskly earlier in the season. Roy Hodgson, the West Bromwich Albion manager, was among those watching on Wednesday, along with Everton’s David Moyes. Either club could do with a strong centre-forward, with Queens Park Rangers also believed to be in the race to sign the Croat. Both managers might be motivated by a whiff of opportunism, too. Rangers’ financial troubles could mean owner Craig Whyte will consider any serious offer made for Jelavic very seriously.

An additional worry for Rangers is that it is not clear where the required inspiration might spill from. Steven Naismith is still sidelined, as he will be for most of the remainder of the season. Steven Davis, the on-field captain, is operating far below his peak and does not seem the kind of character to coax an extra level of performance from team-mates. He inspires through his own excellence, a standard which he is struggling to reach at present.

David Weir, who readily told the slacking Kyle Lafferty a few home truths at half-time against Aberdeen at Pittodrie a couple of seasons ago, remained on the bench at Celtic Park. It must doubly frustrate the club skipper that he is an impotent force at present, with spirit beginning to flag and unrest breaking out among the fans. Never mind a team of Davie Weirs, the man himself is finding it hard enough to get a look-in even after injury has hit the squad. Although David Healy is experienced enough, it might need someone like Weir to have a word in the Northern Irishman’s ear following his delinquent challenge on James Forrest on Wednesday.

It’s a test for McCoist, undoubtedly. He might wish to call Walter Smith, his old mentor. Lennon, it must be recalled, revealed he had sought advice from Gordon Strachan, specifically in relation to Georgios Samaras, in the run-up to the first Old Firm derby of this year.

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“We want to kick on, and instead of people putting pressure on us, we want to try to put pressure on everybody else,” said Lennon yesterday. Though it was all sweetness and light in the pre and post-game exchanges between McCoist and Lennon, this latest challenge could be among the most provocative acts in recent Old Firm history. It dares the Rangers manager, and his team, to react.