Rangers v Celtic: the 5 key battles that will decide Sunday's Premiership powderkeg
With three points separating the top two in the cinch Premiership, much rests with the eleven players picked for Rangers and Celtic on Sunday at Ibrox.
There are big-game players on each side who can make a difference to not only the match, but given their proximity in the table, the title race. It could come down to fine margins and when two foes are so closely matched, the devil is in the detail and the smaller individual duels which could also have a bearing on the outcome.
Here, we look at some of the areas Sunday’s showdown could be won and lost…
Filip Helander v Giorgos Giakoumakis
The Swedish international will likely be preferred to Leon Balogun to start, given their contrasting travels and participation in the World Cup play-offs. Balogun played 180 minutes in Nigeria and Ghana, Helander five minutes for Sweden.
Even so, his attributes lend themselves to this fixture. Helander is a defender who loves to defend, first and foremost. No nonsense, no risk, just stop the opposition, and it is those principles which will come into play in a bid to shackle Celtic’s in-form Greek striker.
Much has been made of Giakoumakis’ goal-scoring feats, and the fact that so many have been first-time finishes. If Helander is tasked with applying the fundamentals, carrying out the basics with his risk averse nature, it’s unlikely that there will be many first-time opportunities for Giakoumakis to capitalise on. If he is going to score then, he’s going to have to work for it.
Helander already knows what it is like to score an Old Firm winner too and with Celtic at their most vulnerable from set-pieces, aerial superiority at both ends of the pitch could also become a factor of the match, and therefore the title.
James Tavernier v Daizen Maeda
It’s not unusual for a forward against a defender to be regarded as a key battle in a match – the reasons for this one being so crucial though is a little different and turn the usual one-on-one on its head.
The Rangers captain is one of his side’s biggest attacking threats with his right-side bursts, assists and goals. Curtailing those runs and forcing Tavernier to defend more than he otherwise would in domestic situations will help Celtic reduce his influence, and more importantly his crosses, where Ange Postecoglou’s side have lost most of their 18 goals from this season.
That will be as important a task for Maeda’s forward role in keeping Tavernier defensively busy with his perpetual darting movement, as it will be actually attacking the Rangers defence. However the Rangers captain has proven himself adept at both ends of the pitch this season when called upon, particularly in Europe so an engrossing tussle is expected wide on the wing.
John Lundstram v Reo Hatate
Sunday’s Old Firm midfield battle could just as easily be listed as a face-off between Ryan Jack and Callum McGregor but it is hard to separate the players who fulfil very similar roles for club and country – even Scotland boss Steve Clarke replaced McGregor with Jack against Poland in a straight swap. Who comes out on top could simply come down to individual performances on the day – or both could neutralise the other in the centre of the park.
Alongside them, in contrast are Hatate and Lundstram – two players who have come to the fore since January.
In Lundstram, Giovanni van Bronckhorst has discovered a reliable utility man and a perfect pair for Jack with a power in both his tackling and driving runs which, tradition tells us, is so suited to this fixture.
But Hatate took the last Old Firm match in his stride and lit up Parkhead that night with two goals in an all-round dynamic display that caught the hearts of Celtic’s support.
Who is able to exert their authority on the middle-ground or set a platform and dictate the play will be vital component for each side in the midfield where, as the football cliche goes, the game is won and lost.
Kemar Roofe v Carl Starfelt
For the second Old Firm in a row, Rangers are without Alfredo Morelos. Kemar Roofe led the line when Celtic triumphed 3-0 in February, and he got very little change from Cameron Carter-Vickers and Carl Starfelt. While a blow for the home side, the stats suggest it is not much of a let-off for Celtic. Roofe scored twice last season in the fixture at Ibrox and has a far healthier strike-rate than his Colombian team-mate with a goal every two hours compared to Morelos’ 173 minutes.
Stats also show though that Starfelt is part of the SPFL’s meanest defence, conceding once every two games on average, but those goals come when opponents make first contact in the penalty area. How Roofe steps up to continue his streak, and how Starfelt maintains his own defence’s record will be a tussle that could have a defining mark on the game, and the season.
Giovanni van Bronckhorst v Ange Postecoglou
Call it pragmatism against philosophy, but while Celtic have a set way of playing and set-up, Rangers have exhibited a degree of flexibility in both style and formation. John Lundstram and Calvin Bassey are key to those options with van Bronckhorst using both in central defence on occasion whether to accommodate others, or play three at the back and see out games. It’s an ability to change tactically which has benefited, particularly in Europe and in contrast to the ideology of Postecoglou.
The Celtic manager’s ways have been well documented, with a set-play for the season regardless of venue or opponent. It worked to a tee in the previous encounter in February though it provided a wake-up call for Rangers who have adapted since.
Each manager will prosper or falter based on the decisions they make and in Sunday’s game, the stakes could barely be higher.
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