David Bates has seized the extended opportunity to make a positive impression as a Rangers player he has been given since being thrust into the heat of the last Old Firm game at Celtic Park in December.
The 21-year-old defender now intends to make his mark in the fixture again at Ibrox on Sunday by shutting down the threat posed by Celtic striker Moussa Dembele.
Bates had to step off the bench after just 18 minutes of the previous showdown three months ago to replace the injured Bruno Alves, pictured. The former Raith Rovers player rose to the occasion, earning Man of the Match plaudits for his role in the 0-0 draw secured by Graeme Murty’s side.
Murty has kept faith with Bates ever since and he is poised to make his 11th consecutive starting appearance this weekend as Rangers pursue a victory which would reduce Celtic’s lead at the top of the Premiership table to three points, with the reigning champions having a game in hand.
If Bates can once again subdue Dembele, who was substituted just after an hour of the festive fixture at Parkhead, he knows it could go a long way towards dragging Rangers firmly into a credible title challenge.
“Dembele is a good player featuring at Celtic every week and you have to treat him with respect,” said Bates. “He’s strong with good ability but you have to try and put your print on him and do what you’re good at week in, week out.
“I think I’m capable of doing it, as is any centre-half at the club. As a back four, we defend as a unit and we take it from there.
“Being back in the team for the last ten games has been great for me. I’ve been playing week in, week out and that’s been a lot of help to me. I feel more confident going into the games and more comfortable in the back four.
“To be honest, I felt confident I could go into the team and do a job for the team even before the last game against Celtic. I was then called upon earlier than I thought, but luckily enough I did well when I went on.
“It was like any game, I was just looking to make a good first pass and make a good first tackle or header. That usually sets you up for a good game.
“The gaffer hadn’t been in the job for long at that point and he got a good bit of confidence into the team. He’s also been very good since the winter break as well.”
Defensive diligence and organisation was the key to Murty’s strategy when Rangers earned a point at Celtic Park, although they also missed some decent opportunities to snatch all three. Bates is confident there will be a greater onus on the attacking strengths Rangers possess this weekend.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt we’ll create chances on Sunday,” he added. “We see it every week recently, we’re really good going forward.
“We’ve been conceding a few chances at the back recently too, but not much. I just think going forward we’re a big threat. Our gameplan will be the same as usual but we’ll attack as we’re scoring a lot of goals at the moment. I don’t think this game will be any different. The way we’re playing and the fact we’re scoring goals makes everyone confident and I can see why the fans are feeling that way too.”
Bates, however, denies any over-confidence has crept into the Rangers squad who reportedly cheered in their dressing room last Sunday when the Scottish Cup semi-final draw handed them another showdown against Celtic.
“After the game, we were just buzzing having got to a semi-final and any team we’d have got in the draw we’d have cheered,” he insisted.
“Celtic is a big game and we all want to play in big games. Maybe it was perceived that we wanted to take them on, but I don’t think the boys were being over-confident. We’re not like that. We’ve seen how good Celtic can be. They made it into the Europa League and did alright in the Champions League, competing against good teams. Celtic on their day are a very good side. We need to respect what they’re good at but also show what we’re good at.
“We’ve prepared this week just like we prepare for every game. We did our recovery and have been training the rest of the week. We just need to keep the week as normal as possible, even though it’s not a normal game. An Old Firm game isn’t a normal game.
“But we’ve prepared properly to go again Sunday. We don’t want to change anything before a big game, do we? It would be stupid to do that.”