Colossal Clement gives growing Rangers the edge: Coldplay v The Clash, revolution from within, have Celtic hit ceiling

Now favourites to win the title, Ibrox outfit are reaping rewards of bringing in a successful leader as manager

There was no change to Philippe Clement’s demeanour in the immediate aftermath of Rangers going top of the Premiership for the first time this season.

As he huddled into the corner of St Johnstone’s cosy media room, his biggest concern was avoiding banging his head off the low roof above his seat. The 49-year-old is a tall man – but as is becoming increasingly apparent, he is one used to hitting the heights in football management.

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Brought in by Rangers to revive their ailing fortunes after Michael Beale’s tenure, there was certainly no genuine expectation of him landing the league title this season. Celtic were already seven points clear when he set foot inside Ibrox. Clement admitted that there was “a fire” to put out in Govan, a team and fanbase suffocating from the fumes of a dreadful start to the season. Rangers have not risen from the ashes quite yet but the big Belgian has proven to be a mighty fine firefighter.

Rangers are now above Celtic in the Premiership standing with 12 matches remaining.Rangers are now above Celtic in the Premiership standing with 12 matches remaining.
Rangers are now above Celtic in the Premiership standing with 12 matches remaining.

Vanquishing the Saints 3-0 on Sunday at McDiarmid Park allowed Rangers to move two points clear of Celtic at the summit with 12 games to go. They are now clear favourites to wrest the league trophy from Celtic’s clutches – most bookies make Rangers 4/7 jollies, Celtic 13/8 – and have momentum and positivity on their side. Conversely, Celtic are shrouded in negativity and in-fighting, their fanbase now panicked at the change of direction. They have been blown off course under Brendan Rodgers. Since losing 2-0 to Hearts in mid-December, Celtic’s league results look good on paper – six wins, one of which was against Rangers, and two draws – but performances have been alarming. There is a flatness about Celtic. Rangers aren’t exactly jumping on a trampoline but there is more bounce and vigour to their game.

This will be of huge concern to Rodgers and Celtic. They will hope to get some sort of lift when Cameron Carter-Vickers returns this week. His hamstring issue means he may not be the defensive cheat code of the past two seasons, but he will shore them up and add leadership. Reo Hatate’s verve and incisiveness in midfield is sorely missed. Injuries have pockmarked his season and the Japanese is not due to return for a couple of matches yet. The manager surely must be fretting about the drop-off in performance levels of players like Kyogo Furuhashi and Matt O’Riley recently. Even captain Callum McGregor has not looked himself. The football is far from swashbuckling.

Not that you need to be great football artists to win titles in Scotland. Celtic supporters rocked on to the style of title-winning football under Ange Postecoglou but Rodgers’ brand is more Coldplay than The Clash. Now, the intricacies of Celtic’s game would not be getting questioned so scrupulously if Celtic were still top dogs but the complete erosion of their lead had led to this. It is in stark contrast to what Clement has achieved with a squad that many deemed completely unfit for purpose when he arrived. He has only lost one match since arriving in October – against Celtic – has topped a Europa League group and landed the League Cup.

One of Clement’s opening gambits when he took the job was that he knows how to get the best out of existing players. There was a school of thought that he would need a relative war chest to make Rangers competitive. Three new signings were made in the January window – striker Fabio Silva and winger Oscar Cortes on loan and a sizeable investment in Ivorian midfleder Mohamed Diomande, who scored his first goal for Rangers in Perth. All have started their careers at Ibrox brightly but the revolution has been driven from those who were already within Ibrox.

Philippe Clement has galvanised this Rangers team into genuine title contenders.Philippe Clement has galvanised this Rangers team into genuine title contenders.
Philippe Clement has galvanised this Rangers team into genuine title contenders.

James Tavernier has stood up as captain, Connor Goldson, Leon Balogun and John Souttar have become far more reliable in central defence, John Lundstram is a general in midfield, while the forward line is much more productive. Cyriel Dessers – a comedy figure under Beale – still has his moments of slapstick but the Nigerian has improved markedly under Clement’s watch. Playmaker Todd Cantwell is more disciplined and focused. Dujon Sterling’s undoubted abilities are being tapped into. Winger Ross McCausland has emerged from the youth ranks. All of this has happened amid a slew of injuries to first-team players such as Nicolas Raskin, Abdallah Sima, Danilo and Kemar Roofe. Clement has called upon almost every member of his squad and they have delivered for him, in terms of effort and carrying out instructions.

Crucially, Rangers now have a leader. Clement carries with him a presence not seen since Steven Gerrard was at Ibrox. He is a winner. He has titles in Belgium with two different clubs to back that up. You don’t get headhunted by Monaco if you don’t have something about you. Rangers brought in a proper football manager, hungry for success and on an upwards trajectory. That is why there is quiet confidence now that Rangers can kick on and win the title. Clement will need to manage his players carefully, for now they have to deal with a different type of pressure. They are the hunted, not the hunter, and expectation levels are rising. But listening to the former Club Brugge boss talk about blocking out noise and focusing on development, you can buy into his methods. He knows what he is doing.

Nevertheless, it would be folly to write off Celtic. There is still a more than capable team in there. Rodgers is a dab hand at winning Old Firm derbies, of which two remain, the first at Ibrox on April 7. Celtic’s players have made all the right noises, talking about sharing home truths and bouncing back. They and the manager also know how to win league titles, although perhaps not in a race as tight at this.

It is now time for Celtic to show they have not hit their ceiling, for Rangers, now the front-runners under the canny and colossal Clement, look like a team with room to grow further.