Regardless of the outcome of Sunday’s last 16 Scottish Cup showdown with Celtic at Ibrox, the 2020-21 campaign will be logged in the record books as a momentously successful one from Rangers’ perspective.
The primary and overarching objective of becoming Premiership champions for the first time in a decade has been achieved in emphatic style by Steven Gerrard’s squad who remain on course for an ‘invincible’ league season.
But having dethroned Celtic and ‘stopped the 10’ in such comprehensive fashion, it should not be underestimated how much it would mean to Rangers and their supporters if they could now ‘stop the five’.
Because Celtic’s pursuit of a fifth consecutive Scottish Cup triumph, extending the record they set by lifting the trophy in the delayed 2019-20 final in December, could apply some much needed balm to the pain experienced by the outgoing Scottish champions after falling short in their quest for the Holy Grail of 10-in-a-row in the league.
By contrast, Rangers have the opportunity to rub salt into the wounds they have already inflicted upon their Old Firm rivals and reinforce the sense they are ready to establish themselves as the new dominant force in Scottish football under Gerrard.
Celtic fighting to avoid first trophy-free season for 11 years
If Gerrard can guide Rangers to the club’s first Scottish Cup success for 12 years, it would come in conjunction with Celtic experiencing a season without any major silverware for the first time since the 2009-10 campaign.
It’s why this Sunday is so meaningful for a Rangers team who should be every bit as motivated to complete a domestic double as Celtic will undoubtedly be to try and salvage some pride from the wreckage of their turbulent season.
The challenge for Gerrard and his coaching staff this week is to try and restore the levels of intensity to Rangers’ play which have understandably dropped in spells of their domestic fixtures since they clinched the Premiership with six matches to spare on the first weekend of March.
In the 1-1 draw at Celtic Park on March 21, Rangers could be content with the resilience and composure they displayed in coming from behind to claim a point off the back of a physically and emotionally draining Europa League last 16 exit against Slavia Prague.
In the Scottish Cup third round tie against Cove Rangers at Ibrox on April 4, Gerrard’s men were never likely to be extended and duly had the job done by half-time in their 4-0 rout of the League 1 side.
Last Sunday, bringing elements of their ‘A’ game to the table in the opening 20 minutes of each half proved sufficient to extend their 100 percent home record in the Premiership with a 2-1 win over a Hibs team able to create enough opportunities to feel they should have taken something from the contest.
But what Gerrard will demand from his players this weekend, and is likely to require, is a genuine 90-minute performance. He has had few reasons to offer any criticism of his team this season but among his occasional complaints has been their tendency to, in his words, ‘turn up late’ or ‘leave early’ in some games.
‘Invincible’ status of secondary importance to Gerrard
Gerrard has made it abundantly clear that his own priority for the rest of this historic season is a Scottish Cup win, rather than completing what would be only the second undefeated top flight league campaign achieved in the country in the last 122 years.
It’s the mindset that any Old Firm manager has to have. For while emulating the feat of Brendan Rodgers’ 2016-17 Celtic side by staying unbeaten throughout a 38-game Premiership schedule would unquestionably be noteworthy, it won’t take up any additional space in the Ibrox trophy room.
Putting the Scottish Cup back on display alongside the Premiership trophy is what would truly enhance and underscore the outstanding progress made by Rangers under Gerrard as their restoration at home and in Europe gathers momentum.
The current 12-year barren spell is the longest period Rangers have gone without lifting Scottish football’s oldest and most prestigious cup competition since the famous 25-year hoodoo from 1903 to 1928 which was ended by a 4-0 win over Celtic in the Hampden final.
Since the second world war, the longest hiatus previously experienced by Rangers fans was the 11 years between their 1981 and 1992 Scottish Cup triumphs.
Playing the Old Firm numbers game
Celtic have firmly established themselves as the competition’s pre-eminent force in the modern era. When Rangers last lifted the trophy in 2009, it was the 33rd time they had done so - at that stage, it took them to just one behind Celtic’s tally of 34. Since then, Celtic have extended that gap at the top of the all-time Scottish Cup leaderboard by winning it a further six times.
When it comes to the numbers game, of course, Rangers and their supporters lend the greatest weight to the figure of 55 which has been notched up this season in their record collection of league titles. Throughout the summer and going into next season, that is the achievement which will warm and sustain them irrespective of their Scottish Cup fate.
But even in times when the biggest prize of all has been won, losing out in other competitions to your greatest rivals always stings. That’s a message which Steven Gerrard is sure to relay loudly and clearly at the Rangers training ground over the next few days.