Not since Martin O’Neill was in his pomp as Celtic manager has either side of the Old Firm divide completed a full season of top-flight football undefeated in head-to-head combat between the pair.
O’Neill’s success in securing five victories – four in the SPL and one in the Scottish Cup – in 2003-04 against a Rangers side which had claimed the domestic treble the previous season was also only the second time since league reconstruction in 1975 that Celtic had won both league fixtures at Ibrox in a single campaign.
Today, then, offers Brendan Rodgers the opportunity of yet another landmark moment in a season which has consistently sent Celtic historians rifling through the pages of their record books.
Regardless of the circumstances in which the already confirmed six-in-a-row Scottish champions hold a massive 33-points lead over third-placed Rangers in the Premiership, it underlines there really is no such thing as an Old Firm game devoid of genuine meaning for either club.
From Rangers’ perspective, reclaiming even a sliver of pride from the fixture which has brought them so much grief on their return to the top tier of Scottish football will be a motivation of its own at Ibrox this lunchtime. Becoming the first team to defeat Celtic in a domestic fixture – the unbeaten sequence under Rodgers was stretched to 41 games in last Sunday’s Scottish Cup semi-final – would be hungrily feasted upon as a tasty crumb of consolation by the Rangers support.
“That would give us huge satisfaction,” admits Rangers striker Martyn Waghorn. “It is something that has taken all season to hopefully come to an end but for us to do it at this stage would be nice.”
It is perhaps not an outcome, however, in which even the most resiliently optimistic of Rangers fans would choose to invest either faith or finance. The bookies rank the home side as much as 4-1 outsiders to claim all three points, with Celtic odds-on across the board. Even in the betting shops, the much-discussed gulf between the clubs has never been wider.
Pedro Caixinha’s primary objective is to try to close that gap next season but the reaction to his team’s passive 2-0 defeat at Hampden last week showed the new Rangers manager there can be no free shots when it comes to this fixture. Honeymoon periods can end abruptly in this corner of the football world and the Portuguese coach will have to tease a far more spirited and cohesive display from his players today if he hopes to feel the love of the Ibrox punters over the summer and beyond.
Caixinha’s revelation immediately after the semi-final that his assistant Helder Baptista had told him to tone down his pre-match team talk as the Rangers players appeared too tense during the warm-up cast doubt on whether they possess the necessary mental strength to cope with the demands of an Old Firm game.
That assessment is refuted in general terms by Waghorn, although he does admit the size of the occasion did get the better of Rangers at Hampden.
“I wouldn’t say we were on edge,” said Waghorn. “It was just the importance of the game. Everyone wants to get through to a final and we knew the stakes. The build-up was also about stopping Celtic winning the treble. Playing for Rangers, you know how important these games are. It was just one of those days when it got away from us a bit.
“It’s a learning curve. We had young Myles Beerman and David Bates in the side, while I missed last year’s semi-final against Celtic. So it was a big learning curve for a lot of us. You have to deal with it and accept it wasn’t good enough. Then you have to build on it and use any positives you do have to move forward.
“I don’t think it was about our mentality or down to being tense. It was just the way we started the game. We didn’t get in amongst them as quickly as we should have. The early goal Celtic scored put us on the wrong foot and it was always going to be tough. Maybe that first goal affected us more than it should have. There was still a lot of time to be played. That’s one thing we can learn from. We have to try and react a bit better.”
Waghorn also denies that a failure to properly understand Caixinha’s tactics played a part on the day.
“No,” he said. “We had a way we were set up and it was to force the low block and press Celtic in certain areas. We probably gave away some areas which they exploited. The better teams will do that, while you get away with it against other opposition. We had to change our tactics in the second half. I wouldn’t say we then got the better of them, but we got a foothold in the game. The second goal took the wind out of our sails. It was frustrating that it took us 45 minutes to get into the game.
“We have learned from the game, we have worked hard this week. This is a good opportunity to put it right. It’s important you start off on the right foot and don’t give them too much time on the ball. You don’t let them implement their game. They are coming to Ibrox, to our place, so it’s important we stamp our authority on the game. We’ve got to take the game to them. It’s going to be some atmosphere in front of our fans and we have to embrace that. We’ve got to use it in the right way.”
While Rangers were more competitive in the two previous Premiership fixtures between the sides, losing 2-1 at Ibrox on Hogmanay and then drawing 1-1 at Celtic Park in March, it has been clear throughout all five Old Firm games so far that Rodgers’ side have far greater quality throughout their side. Even the absence of top scorer Moussa Dembele can be regarded as only a minor irritation for Celtic today as they replace him with Leigh Griffiths. He may say that completing the domestic season unbeaten is not “the be all and end all” for Celtic, but no-one should doubt the desire Rodgers will have to hammer home his team’s superiority over Rangers today. Even a fixture which matters little in the greater scheme of things still means so much to both clubs.