Steven Gerrard says Old Firm derbies will decide title race

Rangers' Ryan Kent and Celtic's Jeremie Frimpong will renew rivalries at Celtic Park after their Betfred Cup final joust. Picture: Craig Foy / SNS
Rangers' Ryan Kent and Celtic's Jeremie Frimpong will renew rivalries at Celtic Park after their Betfred Cup final joust. Picture: Craig Foy / SNS
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For Steven Gerrard and Rangers, achieving parity with Celtic in the four Premiership meetings of the teams last season ultimately earned the Ibrox club nothing more than an improved sense of self-respect.

Celtic still finished nine points clear of their improving city rivals at the top of the table as an eighth consecutive title triumph was secured.

But while it was points squandered against other teams which proved most costly for Rangers in Gerrard’s first campaign in charge, he believes the current title race could well be decided by whoever takes the lion’s share from the Old Firm clashes.

His team are already in deficit on that account, having lost the opening league game between the sides 2-0 at Ibrox on 1 September.

It places extra onus on Rangers to try and overturn that result at Celtic Park on Sunday where they will kick off five points behind Neil Lennon’s men, albeit with a game in hand.

“Last season the Old Firm games didn’t prove significant in terms of the title, because it was split 50-50 with two wins apiece,” said Gerrard.

“But what also happened was that a lot of teams were taking points off Celtic and ourselves. So maybe the importance of the Old Firm results wasn’t going to be pivotal.

“This year looks as if it is taking a different pattern – so far. With all due respect, with the consistency of Celtic and ourselves, it could well boil down to what happens in the Old Firm games. It’s difficult to deny that with the pattern the season has taken so far. That’s the reason why it’s so important we get a result.”

That remains a daunting task for Rangers at a venue where they haven’t won since 2010 and Gerrard is at pains to point out he won’t be drawing any firm conclusions about the likely outcome of the title race, regardless of the outcome on Sunday.

“I hear this all the time – ‘If you win this game, does it mean you’ll win the league?’,” he added. “I hear and see other managers face it, in the Premier League and elsewhere.

“To me, it’s just another game of football. It’s a huge game and a big, important three points but there is so much football to be played after the winter break. We will play nine home games out of 15 so we are more than capable of going on a really strong run.

“But there is no getting away from it – it will certainly be helpful if we go and get the result we want this weekend. But I am not going to buy into the season being over or dead or that we will down tools if the result doesn’t go our way.

“If we win, it obviously puts us in much better shape. If we draw, it’s a positive result. But if we were to lose the game it would obviously be a setback and make the challenge a lot more difficult for us. The players are aware of it and so am I.

“But this is what being part of Rangers should be about. We should all be under pressure and involved in big games in Europe and domestically. It means we are doing something right.”

This season, the gulf between the Old Firm and the rest of the top flight has widened significantly. Gerrard believes that is a consequence of Rangers putting in a more credible challenge to Celtic, rather than any drop in standards from the other clubs.

“I don’t want to disrespect the rest of the league for obvious reasons,” he said. “You would get other managers jumping out to say ‘you earn more money than us’ and this and that.

“Everyone is trying their best to compete with the Old Firm. Killie put a fantastic show on to try and nullify and frustrate us on Boxing Day, Aberdeen took Celtic to the wire just a few days earlier. So teams are doing everything they can, but what’s happened is that Celtic have improved and we’ve improved. I think the pressure from each side is bringing the best out of both teams.

“In any league, the neutrals or those who really appreciate football want the title race to be as exciting as it can be. Obviously from our point of view, we want it to be as easy as it can be but that’s just not going to happen. But for Scottish football, if you are looking in or are part of it, where we stand at the moment is probably one of the most exciting positions for a long time.

“Our aim and our plan is to be as consistent and hungry and good as we can be, right to the very end. Whatever the result is at the weekend. All the players have to do is be brave, back themselves and go to Celtic Park with belief. When we first came together and made all the changes to the squad, I could see the first Old Firm fixture at Celtic Park was probably a bit too big for some. Some weren’t ready for it and we maybe weren’t ready as a group.

“But as we have grown and recruited, this squad and team are ready to compete with the Celtic team. They have to back themselves and believe they can go and do it.

“This is an opportunity for us to really show where we are at and how hungry we are to change the dynamic of the league and how it has been for many years.”