Celtic v Rangers: Michael Beale 'wasn't there in flipflops', the holding pattern and is Hampden more important

Placing each Old Firm league fixture in context is a thankless task. They all, in the modern era at least, tend to have a bearing on the title race. All that really changes is to what extent.

Those which take place at the business end of the season can acquire an extra significance due to one very simple and undeniable factor: time is running out. This afternoon’s penultimate league clash is a case in point. It might even be the endgame. One that means everything and yet, conversely, really means nothing at all.

Rangers fans as well as any neutrals not completely turned off by the – euphemism alert – ancient rivalry presumably all desire an away victory in the hope that a title race can still be resuscitated in the last few weeks of the season. Such a result would certainly be a notable achievement, particularly given the circumstances. There will be no visiting fans present due to “safety and security” issues. But an against-odds away victory would also be the outcome initiating least change. Any other outcome hands the league to Celtic and would be interpreted as decisive. Three points for Rangers simply extends this holding-pattern arrangement where the blue plane remains on the tail of the green one and, despite edging a little closer, has no hope of being permitted to land first.

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It’s why there’s only one answer for a Rangers fan to give when they are given the choice of winning this weekend’s league clash or the Scottish Cup semi-final later this month. Even winning both remaining Old Firm league encounters might still not trump a victory over Celtic at Hampden.

Referee Kevin Clancy sends off Rangers first team coach Michael Beale (right) during a derby in 2019.Referee Kevin Clancy sends off Rangers first team coach Michael Beale (right) during a derby in 2019.
Referee Kevin Clancy sends off Rangers first team coach Michael Beale (right) during a derby in 2019.

Three points this afternoon would draw the Ibrox side to within six points of their rivals. However, with seven games left, albeit one of them requiring Celtic to head to Govan, it would still take an almighty collapse on the part of Ange Postecoglou’s side to prevent green and white ribbons being tied to the Premiership trophy for the eleventh time in the last 12 years. The champions have hitherto shown little sign that they might be susceptible to such a failure of nerve. Equally relevant is the rest of the league not appearing capable of taking advantage of those times when Celtic are operating slightly below par. After watching his team score twice in the last eight minutes of regulation time to secure a win against Hibs a few weeks ago, Postecoglou praised them for being able to find the “solution” by simply sticking with the brand of football they had been programmed to play. They had avoided being distracted by the rising anxiety in the stands after going a goal behind to ten men.

Rangers manager Michael Beale recognises that the slim prospects of anyone else managing to take anything from Celtic has rendered his own side even more impotent. “It doesn’t look like, outside the games with us, they (Celtic) will drop points," he lamented yesterday. In other words, while two wins in the remaining Old Firm league fixtures are non-negotiable requirements for Rangers, that, even then, probably won’t be enough. The phrase ‘in our own hands’ has not been heard at Ibrox in quite some time with reference to their league ambitions. At least they remain in charge of their Scottish Cup destiny. Beale has already admitted that a win for his team this weekend would “not move the dial much”.

The corresponding fixture last season saw Celtic come from behind to secure a 2-1 win at Ibrox to increase their lead at the top to six points. That was hailed as an all but title-clinching statement. Six points will still be the gap even if Rangers pull off what many regard as an unlikely win today. But Beale is not cowed by the responsibility. While it might be his first trip to Celtic Park as manager, he’s been there several times already as first-team coach under Steven Gerrard. “It’s not as if I went there in my flip-flops,” he said. “I went there with the same mentality. I was supporting Gary (McAllister) and Steven and feeling it exactly the same. I think when you are in charge you have a clearer head. Maybe you're a bit calmer.”

He will need to be. The last time he was at the stadium for a non-closed doors fixture, in December 2019, he received a red card from today’s referee Kevin Clancy following a flare-up with Celtic assistant John Kennedy after Rangers striker Alfredo Morelos was sent off. The visitors won 2-1. “That was a long time ago, to be fair,” Beale said yesterday. A more recent 2-2 draw at Ibrox in January is a more relevant reference point. Beale's side turned things round after losing an early goal to lead 2-1 but Kyogo Furuhashi’s late equaliser was, even then, deemed to be the moment the title was won.

Rangers' last win at Celtic Park came in 2020 in front of no fans.Rangers' last win at Celtic Park came in 2020 in front of no fans.
Rangers' last win at Celtic Park came in 2020 in front of no fans.

Little that has happened since has necessitated a reassessment. Celtic have won every game they've played, including the Viaplay Cup final against Rangers earlier this year. That sentence alone perhaps accounts for Beale’s seeming fatalism on the eve of this fixture. More rests on the Hampden meeting. Rangers, like Celtic, will have around 25,000 fans on their side. Not that it did them much good at Hampden in February, when their shortcomings, in midfield specifically, were so brutally exposed. The news that Nicolas Raskin is available again after injury is a pre-match boost for Rangers. So, too, is Reo Hatate's absence for the opposition in the same area of the pitch.

There were 700 Rangers supporters present at Celtic Park earlier this season and the visitors were still beaten 4-0 in a result that marked the beginning of the end for Giovanni van Bronckhorst. The last time Rangers won in the east end of Glasgow in October 2020 there were no away fans in attendance. And no home fans either of course. Rangers prospered amid the sterility of a stadium that echoed only with the shouts of players. They will require far larger hearts today.

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