Rangers v Celtic: Why Old Firm showdown is moment of truth for Giovanni van Bronckhorst in high stakes title race

When the dust settles on the action at Ibrox on Sunday afternoon, the Premiership title race will still be on regardless of the outcome.

Yet even though there will be another 18 points to play for, it is difficult to avoid the sense that the latest Old Firm collision represents a defining and possibly decisive stage of the campaign.

Clearly, that is especially the case for defending champions Rangers in arguably the most significant match yet faced by manager Giovanni van Bronckhorst since he replaced Steven Gerrard last November.

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Having inherited a four-point lead at the top of the table, which was subsequently increased to six before the turn of the year, van Bronckhorst now finds his team trailing Ange Postecoglou’s resurgent Celtic by three points.

Celtic players celebrate after Reo Hatate scored his second goal in the 3-0 win over Rangers at Celtic Park in February. (Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images).

If that gap is stretched to six with a Celtic victory, even the most optimistic Rangers supporter would struggle to present a case for their team turning it around in the remaining six rounds of fixtures.

Such has been Celtic’s level of consistency since the winter break, with just two points dropped in 11 games, there is no evidence to suggest they are likely to slip up elsewhere on the run-in.

Even a draw at Ibrox would harden their favouritism with the bookmakers who already have them priced as short as 2-7 to lift the trophy in May.

So victory looks like an imperative for Rangers who are also at a considerable disadvantage in terms of goal difference where Celtic are currently 14 goals better off.

Filip Helander heads home the only goal of the game for Rangers in the first Old Firm league match of the season at Ibrox last August. (Photo by Rob Casey / SNS Group)

Rangers can take confidence from their home form - they are unbeaten in their last 35 Premiership matches at Ibrox, a run which now stretches back over two years since a shock 1-0 loss against Hamilton Accies in March 2020.

They have also won their last four meetings with Celtic at Ibrox - three in the league and one in the Scottish Cup.

But such was the manner of Celtic’s 3-0 victory in the most recent Old Firm clash, with Rangers overwhelmed in a one-sided first half at Parkhead which saw Postecoglou’s team seize the initiative in the title race, it is van Bronckhorst’s men who have more to prove this weekend.

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It is the start of a momentous month for Rangers which could see them play seven games in 26 days if they make further progress in the Europa League where they travel to face Braga in the first leg of their quarter-final tie on Thursday night.

Rangers manager Giovanni van Bronckhorst (left) and his Celtic counterpart Ange Postecoglou (right) both hope to point the way to victory when their teams meet at Ibrox on Sunday. (Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images)

With a Scottish Cup semi-final against Celtic at Hampden on April 17 included in that schedule, a tantalising opportunity is there for van Bronckhorst to achieve landmark success in three competitions.

With the League Cup already snared, Postecoglou is eyeing a treble of his own, one which would represent a remarkable fifth domestic clean sweep in six seasons for Celtic.

Few would have predicted that scenario for the Australian coach when his rebuilding job began with 10 points being dropped in the first seven games of the season.

A 1-0 defeat on his first visit to Ibrox back in August, with Filip Helander scoring the only goal of the contest, was part of that run. It was a day when Rangers showed resilience in the absence of goalkeeper Allan McGregor and captain James Tavernier to claim a win which seemed to validate their then status as clear favourites to retain the title.

They will have to respond to adversity again, this time deprived of the services of top scorer Alfredo Morelos who was sent home from international duty by Colombia due to a calf injury.

Although Morelos’ record in Old Firm matches is hardly illustrious, with just two goals in his 18 appearances against Celtic, he brings a dynamic to their play in the attacking third of the pitch which none of Rangers’ other forwards can replicate.

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Kemar Roofe is the most likely candidate to fill the central striking role and while the Jamaican international has been a peripheral figure for much of van Bronckhorst’s tenure so far, he showed his capabilities in this fixture last season when he scored twice in the 4-1 win at Ibrox in May.

As ever, the midfield battle will be key. It was a contest won hands-down by Celtic in that dizzying first 45 minutes at Parkhead where captain Callum McGregor, Matt O’Riley and two-goal Reo Hatate set a tempo Rangers were unable to live with.

The introduction of Ryan Jack at the start of the second half steadied the ship for Rangers and the Scotland midfielder will be crucial to their hopes of dictating the pace of the contest on Sunday.

Celtic will seek to limit the influence of Tavernier, perhaps through high energy pressing from tireless Japanese forward Daizen Maeda. The swashbuckling right-back has been Rangers’ leading performer this season with 12 goals and 15 assists, carrying a threat both in open play and at set pieces.

Celtic have the best defensive record in the Premiership with just 18 goals conceded and 17 clean sheets. But 11 of those goals came from set pieces, indicating an area Rangers will hope to exploit.

The visitors, however, will sniff similar opportunities to take advantage of a Rangers defence which has lost last season’s air of impregnability and has kept just five clean sheets in the 11 league games since the winter break.

It all adds up to an intriguing prospect with the bookies barely able to split them - Rangers are slight favourites because of home advantage.

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Nothing will be settled for sure on Sunday but the greater pressure is unquestionably on van Bronckhorst and his team to prevent their rivals taking what would be a giant step towards reclaiming the Premiership crown.

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