Rangers supporters will head for Ibrox tomorrow more confident that they can end Celtic’s domestic domination than they have been at any time since they descended into administration and liquidation eight seasons ago but the champions’ manager, Neil Lennon, suggested that they should temper their optimism.
While conceding that Steven Gerrard, his counterpart across the city, has made Rangers stronger than they were during his first season in charge, he warned that Celtic will also be more fearsome opponents than they were when securing a third successive treble in May.
Rangers are unbeaten in eight Europa League qualification matches, are in the quarter-finals of the Betfred Cup and, like Celtic, have won all three of their league fixtures to trail their rivals only on goal difference.
However, Lennon argues that the signings his club have made – allied to the ones they are striving to complete before the transfer window closes on Monday – means they should still have the edge when the teams meet at Ibrox tomorrow lunchtime.
“Their results speak for themselves,” he said. “They’re playing with confidence and are unbeaten so far so you’d have to say they have improved, which I would have expected over the piece. But we’ve scored nine times in the past three games. People take that for granted, it can get overlooked but we were struggling to score goals this time last year. We’re up to 39 already so I think we’ve improved as well.”
Lennon accepts, though, that his derby rivals are more realistic title challengers this year than in the three previous campaigns since they first arrived in the Premiership in 2016.
“Is this the biggest derby in a while? Possibly, although it’s the most important one because it’s the next one,” he said.
Lennon also refused to read anything into the 2-0 defeat Celtic suffered in Govan at the end of last season. “There was a fatigue there; we’d just won the league the week before,” he said. “Maybe, psychologically, we’d downed tools a little bit but then the players go on and win the Scottish Cup.
“Whether people say it was a dead rubber or not, you always want to compete in those games and we didn’t compete well enough; that’s something that we’ll obviously have to look at going into the game on Sunday.
“We were passive that day. I don’t know, maybe they were saving themselves for the cup final. Subconsciously, you can do that. Other than the three points, people might say there wasn’t a lot to play for but there’s professional pride as well. Obviously, this is totally different.”
Lennon could hand Moritz Bauer, the Austrian right-back who joined on a season-long loan from Stoke City on Monday, a baptism of fire. The 27-year-old hasn’t played a competitive game since May but injuries to Hatem Abd Elhamed and Kristoffer Ajer could force the manager’s hand.
“We’ll need to wait and see,” he said. “Kris is in having treatment and we’re waiting to find out how Elhamed is because he was still a bit sore and tentative. We’ll assess that in the morning but Jozo Simunovic will be available again after we gave him a bit of a rest due to his knee.
“Obviously, you’d have qualms about going into such a big game as this with [Bauer] when he hasn’t played but it may be a question of needs must and he’s a fit lad. We’ll need to assess the situation – it would be a big ask to do that but it’s not something that’s beyond us.”
Captain Scott Brown has been criticised in some quarters due to some lacklustre displays this season but Lennon launched a stout defence of the veteran midfielder.
“He’s very important for us and he was brilliant [against AIK Stockholm] on Thursday, absolutely outstanding – just really free and fit,” he claimed. “He read the game brilliantly and had a real influence on the pitch. He was back to his best, which augurs well for Sunday.
“Then there’s James Forrest, who does his talking on the pitch. He’s scored six in his last seven and his goal on Thursday was brilliant, as was his all-round game.”