Against a Celtic team without three of its best forwards and three reliable defenders, not to mention almost 60,000 passionate fans, a near full-strength Rangers started this match at an empty Celtic Park as slight favourites. The expectation of them was a victory.
Living up to that mantle when the stakes are so high is not easy, but this Rangers performance was cohesive, organised, mature and clinical. From early on, you could see Steven Gerrard’s men believed they would win this. They played with an assured aura, each man in blue knowing what their job was and having complete trust in each other. They were the polar opposite to an almost cobbled together Celtic team.
The strength of the substitutes benches told a story too. Rangers left Jon McLaughlin, Joe Aribo, Ianis Hagi, Cedric Itten and Ryan Jack out of the starting XI. The squad gets deeper and deeper each season. Celtic were without Odsonne Edouard, James Forrest and Ryan Christie – three heroes of derbies past – and also Nir Bitton, Hatem Elhamed and Chris Jullien. There was a surprise start for academy graduate Stephen Welsh in defence. Celtic boss Neil Lennon has to rummage far into his bag for players.
It would be easy to make excuses for Celtic, but that would totally unfair on Rangers. This was their most complete derby performance under Gerrard.
Going for gold
Conor Goldson bagged both goals, the first a simple header from a James Tavernier cross on nine minutes before, at the beginning of the second half, the same player popped up in the Celtic box and coolly converted after his initial effort from a Scott Arfield cross had been blocked on 54 minutes.
Goldson was the Gers’ star man here, not only for his two goals but marshalling a visiting backline that dealt comfortably with Celtic’s attack force of Mohamed Elyounoussi and Patryk Klimala. Only twice did Celtic really engineer a chance of note, when Elyounoussi lobbed over the bar and, deep in the second period, subsitute Leigh Griffiths managed to round Allan McGregor before the Rangers keeper recovered to block on the line.
Former Brighton man Goldson is a leader; he keeps those around him organised, he puts his body on the line and Rangers’ defence is not the same without him. He was ably assisted by his centre-back partner Filip Helander. The Swede missed international duty because of injury but was pretty faultless too.
Slick, sophisticated system
Gerrard has constructed a team and system that suits his players down to the ground. The 4-3-3 is fluid, anchored by the two centre-backs and, on this occasion, Glen Kamara and Steven Davis in midfield. The base they created here allowed Scott Arfield to support the front three of Ryan Kent, Alfredo Morelos and Brandon Barker.
Normally wing-backs Borna Barisic and James Tavernier bomb forward at will too, but they were a little more conservative, often joining the midfield rather than the attack. Their hybrid attack/defence setting meant that Celtic were constantly occupied in their back yard and when they cleared, the two sitters mopped up behind the Rangers front line. It was a cute tweak to the tactics by Gerrard.
Barker and Morelos
The Rangers manager took a chance by starting Barker for the first time in such a fixture, and while the ex-Man City forward was a little slow to start with, he grew into the game and his pace was always a menace. It is clear Gerrard likes the direct running the former Hibs loanee brings to the party and he showed more in-game intelligence with his link-up play.
Striker Morelos is still waiting for his first goal against Celtic, but this match wasn’t really about him. He and Celtic defender Shane Duffy had a battle throughout – both got booked for an altercation late in the second period – but his selfless play, running the channels and dropping deep to link up with the midfield, was of huge benefit to Rangers. Considering he flew half-way across the world and back to represent Colombia this week, his efforts must be applauded.
Calm and controlled – and now favourites?
This match, naturally, felt totally different to these two’s last meeting in December 2019, when Gerrard got his first derby win. There were no raucous celebrations, no shouting into the television cameras. While jubilant scenes could be spotted in the away dugout, there was an element of calm, of self-control.
This season is a season like no other. The 2020/21 campaign may never see crowds and, in the backdrop for Celtic’s quest for ten titles in a row, the pressure is only going to increase on both camps. Rangers now hold a four-point lead at the summit of the Premiership, although Celtic do have a game in hand. Gerrard and his players know that the present-day landscape counts for very little right now, albeit they are in a much better position than they were when they defeated Neil Lennon’s men 2-1 at Parkhead last winter. One must remember that we are still in the infancy of this marathon.
One thing is for sure, though. This Rangers team is currently the best performing one in Scotland, shrewdly stitched together by Gerrard. Its quality is often not questioned, more so its mentality and consistency. By winning the first clash with Celtic this season, and so clinically too, Rangers have put down a beefy marker. Celtic will be back – much stronger than the team that lined up so disjointedly and meekly on their own patch – but for the first time in years, and with some bookmakers now making them favourites at odds of 4/6, Rangers can lay some credible claims to being favourites for the crown.