Stressing about his ultimate domestic test that arrives with a first derby experience at Celtic Park next Sunday is something Rangers manager Steven Gerrard won’t countenance, even when it is the culmination of an eight-day schedule of three punishing away fixtures, a programme that will see the former Liverpool captain face up to his old Anfield manager Brendan Rodgers little more than two-and-a-half days after returning from a Russian assignment in which Europa League group stage football will go on the line. This humongous double-header follows on from what has been presented as a battle royale at Motherwell this afternoon.
Little wonder Gerrard says that thoughts of Celtic can wait. Yet the 38-year-old accepts a heavy weight will be placed on a squad that have lifted expectations by putting together a ten-game unbeaten start to his Ibrox tenure.
“It’s a lot to ask the players, but we have to ask,” he said. “They have handled a lot since the start of the season and the next three games are very important. But there is a nice big rest at the end of it for them [with the international break]. We need to take it one game at a time. We need to get maximum points from Motherwell now and it’ll be a different challenge. But we have recovered well from European games so far and I expect us to be ready.”
Some players may be more ready than others in terms of freshness by the time that Celtic rolls around. The arrival of Kyle Lafferty has provided Gerrard with an alternative to Alfredo Morelos up front. No such centre-back cover yet exists for pairing Connor Goldson and Nikola Katic. The long-time pursuit of a player in this bracket will be the focus as he seeks a 13th signing before the transfer window closes this week. The fact that the Europa League play-off with Ufa is on a knife-edge after Rangers’ 1-0 win on Thursday means that Gerrard accepts he does “have the luxury” of resting players between Thursday and Sunday.
“I will tweak the team in certain areas if I feel we need energy,” he said. “I will also look at how the lads are going to recover and I will look at all the running stats to see who has put in big numbers.
“Maybe some will need a rest but others will have to do the full three and give me everything they’ve got. However, we will add some energy where we can. The players are coping with the demands but some are playing more than I’d like at the moment. We have two central defenders who are capable at this level right now. We are pushing them to the max but I am trying to give them some help.
“Alfredo has played an awful lot and wants to play twice a day if he can. But there will come a point when I need to try to help the guys who have played every game.”
The point when Gerrard thinks seriously about the Celtic side he has been tasked with reining in following their seven straight titles will come only when he is on the overnight flight back from Russia. Terry Butcher might have said this week that these fixtures are like “a mini-season in one game”, and Graeme Souness might have quickly changed his mind about these encounters being only another three points. But as an outsider still, Gerrard won’t place the derbies on a pedestal of importance when it comes to making the progress that allows a genuine title challenge to come from Ibrox following seven years without a major trophy.
“I haven’t thought about the Old Firm,” he said, the suggestion being that perhaps he should, his club having lost nine and drawn two of the past 11. “I can honestly say to you, I am not obsessed about Celtic. I don’t know how many times I need to say it. I am obsessed with being successful as the Rangers manager.
“I could lose every Old Firm game I go into – and still win the league. Why should I be obsessed with Celtic? Being candid and honest about it, it’s the game up here in this league. All the media and all the public magnify it, whether you win or lose. If you win, you are the best in the world. If you lose, you are the worst in the world. I understand that. I get it. I signed up for it – I am in. But I am not going to buy into this obsession – I am going to focus on my team and being successful as the Rangers manager.”