In the seven years since Rangers last tasted victory at Celtic Park, the balance of power in Old Firm combat has shifted so inexorably towards the east end of Glasgow as to make the notion of a genuine rivalry between the clubs almost risible.
Yet as they lock horns again this lunchtime, the man responsible for overseeing Celtic’s relentless and mostly merciless recent domination of the fixture is adamant it is in no danger of being stripped of its top billing on the Scottish football calendar.
“These games never lose their allure,” insists Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers, who today seeks to extend an unbeaten run against Rangers which has encompassed six victories and a draw from his first seven experiences of the occasion.
“It’s a really special match,” he added. “We have a good record in the fixture and the idea is to maintain that – we want to win every game but these are special occasions for both sets of supporters. Our aim is to give our fans something to be happy about and something to sing about.”
For the Rangers support who will gather in the south-east corner of Parkhead today, the appeal of the match-up may feel much harder to embrace. Simply avoiding another defeat would be sufficient cause for celebration in the current circumstances their club finds itself. They will hope that Graeme Murty, the man who provided them with their only brief respite from the Rodgers juggernaut last season when he oversaw the 1-1 draw at the same venue in March while in caretaker charge of the side, can conjure up another game plan capable of stifling the champions.
With the absence of three experienced players through injury in Lee Wallace, Graham Dorrans and Kenny Miller likely to be exacerbated by Ryan Jack joining the list of absentees, an already daunting task for Murty becomes all the more problematic. Celtic again appear to hold all the aces, most notably in the key battleground of midfield where Murty’s options look painfully limited. Whatever personnel or formation the now “permanent” Rangers manager deploys, however, Rodgers anticipates facing opponents who are fully united behind the man in the technical area.
“When I hear and read bits and pieces from the Rangers players, they appreciate how difficult Graeme’s job is,” observed Rodgers. “There’s clearly a respect there for him and he’ll now want to go and impose himself on the job between now and the end of the season. They play more direct now than they did under Mark Warburton and Pedro Caixinha, who worked in a slightly different way. Graeme’s gone back to basics a bit more, to give some comfort to the players. The previous two managers wanted to build the game but maybe now that he’s got the job and he has more time, that’s maybe something he’ll want to look at.
“They’ve played a couple of systems under Graeme, used the diamond in midfield, played 4-4-1-1, but it will depend on availability as to how he sets his players out, the shape of the team and the structure. Last season when they drew at Celtic Park they went with a diamond but they also used it when we won 5-1 at Ibrox, so there will be all sorts of thoughts going through his mind. I’m just glad for him that he’s got the job until the end of the season. That won’t allow him to relax, exactly, but at least he’ll be able to plan a little better on a day-to-day basis.”
In a fixture which has historically chewed up and spat out many players who simply couldn’t cope with its intensity or the level of expectation surrounding it, Rodgers believes the attitude of his squad has been just as significant as their ability in allowing them to dominate it so comprehensively.
“You have to give credit to the mentality of our players because they’ve played with no fear in these matches – whether it’s been at home or away or at Hampden – and I think that’s important,” he said. “Because of that lack of fear, we’ve been able to go out and play very well against Rangers.”
There is also a theory, to which Rodgers subscribes, that the lengthy run of setbacks in Old Firm matches has a damaging effect on the psyche of the Ibrox squad, even if only on a subconscious level. But Rangers goalkeeper Wes Foderingham insists he and his team-mates are capable of ensuring their previous traumas against Celtic have no bearing on their efforts to buck the trend and upset the odds today.
“These fixtures are always different,” said Foderingham. “Whatever has happened in the past against them is in the past and we will be looking to Saturday and focusing on getting a good performance. Ultimately, that will lead to a good result. If we can get that approach right, hopefully we won’t go far wrong. I really enjoy these games. It is the reason why I came to Rangers, to play in big fixtures and test myself and I am sure the rest of our boys think the same.”
Rangers have displayed characteristics of grit and resilience in recent away victories over Hearts, Aberdeen and Hibs under Murty which they will hope to replicate today. But Foderingham accepts that a combative spirit alone will not be enough against the most technically adept side in the country.
“There was criticism of us that we couldn’t stand up and fight in big games but we’ve done that at times recently,” he added. “But we will need more than that against Celtic. We need to show more quality on the ball, especially in attack.
“Listen, we are a decent side. A lot of people won’t give us a chance but if we play our football, we are confident. Celtic have already shown they can be beaten this season. If we stick to our game plan, start fast and attack a bit more than we did there in March, then we have got a chance.”