Celtic v Rangers: How narrative has flipped in just a couple days ahead of gargantuan match
Celtic can be excused if they feel somewhat confused at Hampden Park this afternoon. After all, were they not supposed to be facing an enervated Rangers side? The old rivals were meant to be down on their luck, on their uppers and set to be left begging for mercy by their swashbuckling opponents.
Celtic, meanwhile, had been cast as the ones in clover having established a six-point lead over their rivals with a 2-1 win at Ibrox earlier this month. Seven goals in their last outing only intensified the feeling that this was a team getting into their stride at a crucial stage of the season. Pity the wretches with the misfortune to get in their way.
Instead, it’s Rangers who will be waltzing towards Mount Florida with the ice baths and nutritional drinks presumably having had the desired effect after a strength-sapping Europa League quarter final second leg against Braga, when the hosts put themselves through an unnecessary extra 30 minutes’ work following a late lapse at a corner. It might be too early for the beach balls and sombreros – after all, they haven't reached Seville quite yet – but the Rangers fans will likely have something up their sleeve to recognise their status as last four European representatives. Their team are in an elite band of 12 clubs still involved in European football as they look forward to a semi-final meeting with RB Leipzig. Few saw that coming.
The expectation was that Braga would have enough to finish off the job they started at the Estadio Municipal de Braga two Thursdays ago. Out of Europe, needing snookers in the league, today’s Hampden appointment might well have signified a desperate last chance for Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s men to salvage something from the season. Players rarely flourish in such pressurised circumstances. Rangers seemed destined to be picked off by a fresher, livelier Celtic team en route to a potential fifth treble in six years.
That might all still happen of course. It seems inconceivable that the exertions of midweek won't have any effect. Rangers could still very easily end the season trophy-less. Indeed, right now, that scenario is the probable outcome. Celtic are favourites today having won the two recent encounters with their rivals during a 33-match unbeaten domestic sequence.
They have triumphed in their last 17 matches at Hampden while Rangers have won just one of their last eight appearances at the national stadium. But none of this seems to matter as much on the back of genuinely impressive European success. It prompted many in British football to sit up and take notice in a way that even a League Cup success and dare we say it a Scottish Cup final victory would not. Former Celtic defender David Moyes, manager of potential Europa League final opponents West Ham United of course, seemed genuinely thrilled at the news of Rangers’ progress. Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta, a former Rangers midfielder, broke off from a press conference previewing yesterday’s trip to Southampton to hail his former club's achievement. There's no use pretending domestic trophy triumphs would prompt the same reaction.
Suddenly this afternoon's assignment at Hampden is the Ibrox club’s second most important semi-final in the coming weeks.
Rangers' midweek success colours everything when considering this afternoon's much-anticipated encounter. They have played 120 minutes against top European opposition as recently as Thursday while Celtic have enjoyed eight days' preparation time. But the vivifying properties from securing this morale-boosting victory will surely outweigh the negative effects of such a physically punishing exercise, even against vibrant opponents for whom constant motion and continual pressing is such a strong feature of their game.
“You just don't know,” said Celtic manager Ange Postecoglou. He had been asked whether he felt Rangers would feel the benefit of a bounce following Thursday's victory or if it might prove difficult to reach such heights again so soon afterwards.
He expects the former – although such an astute coach would always say that in public.
“What you don't want to fall into is hoping they are not going to be at their best and somehow it will be an easy game,” he added.
“If we prepare in that way, we potentially create a problem for ourselves. What we do every weekend is prepare for the opposition to be at their best.
"My assumption is they will be buoyed and are going to come out and play their best game of the year. We've got to be prepared for that and if we are and play our best game then we give ourselves a chance.
“To think otherwise, to make this space for ourselves where we feel comfortable that they are not going to be the best they can be, that's when you get yourself in trouble.”
Postecoglou is not falling into the trap of looking too far ahead. The manager who not too long ago was mocked by the ignorant for being a nobody is now just a handful of wins away from joining Jock Stein, Martin O’Neill and Brendan Rodgers in the pantheon of treble-winning Celtic managers.
“People mention the treble but all we have so far is a 'single',” he said. “Our role while we are custodians of this club is to bring as much success as possible to it and then, as you said with all those great managers, history will show what those achievements are – right now, we have one trophy, the opportunity to get to the final of another and five games to go in the league.”
In that respect, everything hinges on the outcome of this afternoon. For Rangers, perhaps not so much. A few days ago the opposite seemed to be the case.