If the popularly-held opinion is to be believed, the first Glasgow derby of the season will come down to the performances of Celtic’s debutants Boli Bolingoli and Christopher Jullien.
The Scottish champions and Ibrox hosts who are pretenders to their crown tend to be presented as two finely-matched teams middle-to-front… despite Neil Lennon’s men outscoring their traditional foes at home and abroad. It is in defence that Rangers are considered to have the edge, with the fact that their back five are perceived to be sturdier and more stable.
Lennon would dispute that somehow there has been a levelling- off between the adversaries that allows Rangers to be regarded as favourites for the first meeting between the pair. He does, though, accept that newcomers to the fixture – as summer signings Bolingoli and Jullien will be – must prepare themselves to exhibit composure amid the crash, bang, wallop. From personal experience, he knows that is an altogether taxing demand.
“I remember Martin [O’Neill] telling me it was a blur,” said Lennon of the manager who signed him for the Parkhead club from their previous team Leicester City for a £6 million fee in December 2000. “My first one was the League Cup semi-final at Hampden [in February 2001] and the first 45 minutes were a blur. The good thing about it was we played the corresponding league game three days later so you were better prepared for it.
“You have to try and take it all in very quickly and then try and concentrate on the game. You can pass on your experiences, but each individual player will experience it in their own way. It is a cacophony of noise. It is high octane and it is competitive and I want us to be competitive on Sunday. We have good players and guys with a lot of experience of the fixture who can help the others who are making their debuts.”
Lennon appreciates that Rangers’ excellent early-season form is being talked up, in part, because of the desperation to see a title race that Celtic haven’t allowed for in wrapping up eight straight titles without requiring the closing games of the league campaign to do so. Yet, he appears miffed that the calamitous Cluj exit in the Champions League qualifiers two weeks ago is straining appreciation of the way he has powered up the potency of his team – which was his stated main aim for the club’s assault on the record nine-in-a-row run of titles this season. On Thursday, Celtic netted four times away from home in Europe against full-time opposition for the first time since 2003.
Lennon considers that all too little credit was given to his team – and his exhilarating front four of Odsonne Edouard, Ryan Christie, James Forrest, pictured, and Mikey Johnston – for a 4-1 win away to Swedish champions AIK Stockholm with which they eased into a Europa League group that will pit them against Lazio, Rennes and recent vanquishers Cluj.
The 48-year-old, for his part, isn’t falling over himself to give Steven Gerrard and his players credit for raising playing standards courtesy of 12 games without defeat to ensure they too have an enticing Europa League group stage to contest.
“It’s hard to say – their results have been excellent, they’re playing with a confidence, but it remains to be seen,” Lennon offered when asked if Rangers were a better team this season.
“I can’t gauge how much better they are because I don’t watch them every week. We’ll have a fair idea after Sunday, I suppose.
“But people are talking about Rangers improving, no-one’s talking about Celtic improving. We’ve scored 40 goals this season already. We went and scored four away from home away in Europe this week for the first time in a long time and people have sort of taken it for granted. Our form is sort of getting overlooked a bit and I don’t know why.”
It won’t be if Celtic emerge from their rivals’ backyard with victory this afternoon. All those who castigated Lennon following the cack-handed Cluj lapses will turn turtle and sing his praises.
He would once rail at operating in such a knee-jerk domain. After almost two decades in dealing with such ever-changing moods, he maintains he lets what is said about him from one week to the next wash over him.
“It doesn’t matter to me,” the Celtic manager said. “That is just the environment and the atmosphere you work in in Glasgow. You can either stick your head under the table or just get on with it.
“I have just got on with it and we have won our four games since Cluj. I think the criticism was a sign of the times.
“It is not exclusive to me, whether it be personalised or not. There are a lot of other managers get the same. It is unbalanced but you have to ignore it and face the reality of your job.”