Old Firm derby: 'The key moments went again Rangers' but scale of Celtic challenge recognised as Michael Beale prepares for his biggest week

Rangers lost out heavily to Celtic in the first derby of the season.Rangers lost out heavily to Celtic in the first derby of the season.
Rangers lost out heavily to Celtic in the first derby of the season.
It is sometimes easy to scoff at Michael Beale’s eagerness to present his Rangers credentials. And yet there’s no denying just how deeply he allowed the blue sea of Ibrox to seep into his bones during his first spell at the club, while first-team coach under Steven Gerrard.

Take what he was doing around lunchtime on 3 September, for example. Celtic hosted Rangers in a game that would set the tone for the season. They teased and tormented their Ibrox visitors. In a way, although he had a few more games of his managerial taster menu at Queens Park Rangers to negotiate, the 4-0 defeat suffered by Rangers would also set in motion Beale’s return to Scotland

On that particular afternoon Beale was in Wales for QPR's Championship fixture against Swansea, kick off 3pm. He had experienced a so-so start to his managerial career, winning three of his opening seven league matches in charge since leaving Aston Villa in the summer, two of them coming in the two previous outings. But somewhere – either at the team hotel, or the stadium itself - he managed to locate a television or else find the space and time to open a laptop to monitor events at Celtic Park. Swansea were put on hold.

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“I watched it live,” Beale revealed on the eve of today’s Old Firm re-match. As the 18th manager of Rangers, he is now very much obligated to take a keen interest in the proceedings. That wasn't the case the last the teams met, when he says he was “kicking every ball". He added: "(I was) obviously very frustrated that day with the outcome. The key moments went against Rangers."

Michael Beale watched the last Rangers v Celtic derby on TV and was left 'frustrated'.Michael Beale watched the last Rangers v Celtic derby on TV and was left 'frustrated'.
Michael Beale watched the last Rangers v Celtic derby on TV and was left 'frustrated'.

Perhaps. Rangers were also their own worst enemy. Poor marking at a throw-in, poor covering at the back post. More slackness at a free kick. A goalkeeper error led directly to the fourth goal. They also passed up a fine chance to equalise through Antonio Colak, who headed over after a fine cross from Borna Barisic. The striker also missed a later chance.

It might well have been a different narrative, surely not a different outcome. Rangers were simply unable to live with Celtic that afternoon. Beale’s frustration was compounded by watching from the dugout as the other Rangers lost 1-0 to Swansea a couple of hours or so later.

Nevertheless, the necessary events leading to him fulfilling what he has since described as his destiny had begun to unfold. Rangers moved on to Ajax and lost 4-0 again. They endured a record-equalling 7-1 loss to Liverpool. On the domestic front, it got somewhat sticky too.

Giovanni van Bronckhorst was sacked when more points were dropped at St Mirren shortly after a 2-1 defeat at St Johnstone. Rangers had very conspicuously failed to recover from that Celtic Park mauling.

Celtic manager Ange Postecoglou knows his team are in excellent form right now.Celtic manager Ange Postecoglou knows his team are in excellent form right now.
Celtic manager Ange Postecoglou knows his team are in excellent form right now.

There has been little to be grateful for other than the fact that while teams such as Liverpool, Napoli and Ajax enjoyed making sport of Rangers, the Ibrox side have been spared a return meeting with a Celtic team that have only improved since that September meeting. Until now, that is.

Whether Rangers are equipped to atone for the heavy reversal remains to be seen. Beale at least recognises the scale of challenge. He was unwittingly prepping for it while in another job.

This is a big week for the fledgling Ibrox manager – indeed, fledgling manager full stop. He has taken charge of 26 competitive matches, just four of them at Rangers. In the coming days he faces a landmark fixture v Celtic, his family return to join him in Scotland and his children start school again in Glasgow. The pieces are falling into place. However, a defeat to Celtic would obviously disrupt such a pleasing reorientation of his domestic circumstances.

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"They are the favourites, they are the team with the rhythm," said Beale. "They are the team with no injuries, the team in best form.” He’s not cowed by such observations, which are impossible to argue with. “It’s an opportunity," he said.

Beale has already stressed that Rangers will greet their first-footers on the front foot. While such a plan must be considered admirable, he knows the alternative – treat the opposition warily, contain rather than overwhelm them – is not realistic given the fact Rangers are starting nine points adrift of their rivals and will enjoy the backing of all but 700 fans in the stadium. They must be proactive.

Celtic, of course, are talented enough to pick off their desperate rivals. They will establish a surely unassailable 12-point lead at the top with a 13th successive league victory. They have extra incentive in bidding to honour the memory of former striker Frank McGarvey, who has passed away at the age of 66 after a battle with cancer.

Ange Postecoglou stopped short of welcoming Beale back into the ring – they were direct adversaries when the Celtic manager made his Old Firm debut last season, with Beale stepping up to direct operations in Rangers’ 1-0 win after Gerrard tested positive for Covid. They have certainly never been pictured together in a Glasgow deli, as happened with Van Bronckhorst shortly before they locked horns for the first time.

"If you’re asking if we’ve had lunch or dinner together or if we’ve hung out together then we haven’t,” said Postecoglou. "I came across him last year when we played them in the first game at Ibrox. I had a quick chat with him, as I do with all coaches or managers I bump into along the way. I have great respect for everyone in those roles because I know how challenging they are. We are all competitors.

“You can see he has changed the way the team has played slightly,” he continued. "Obviously, he can’t change too much because he has inherited the same players, but they are players he is familiar with.

"We will analyse their last few games," he added. "Their results have been excellent. They will come into it in good form. We will be ready.”