Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers has questioned the strength of the Rangers revival under the stewardship of Graeme Murty.
The Irishman takes his team to Ibrox tomorrow to face opponents who have won nine of their last ten games. Rodgers, however, believes that their 2-1 defeat by Neil Lennon’s Hibernian in Govan last month was a truer reflection of their current level.
Of those nine successes, three came against non-league or lower-league clubs (Fraserburgh, Ayr United and Falkirk) in the Scottish Cup while four of their league wins came against relegation candidates Ross County, Partick Thistle, Hamilton Academical and St Johnstone; their only top-six victims were Aberdeen and Hearts.
Should Murty’s men prevail tomorrow, the gap between the Premiership’s top two sides will be reduced to just three points.
However, a fourth consecutive win at Ibrox for Rodgers will hoist the leaders nine points clear, with a game in hand and a goal difference superior enough to make it worth another point, leaving Celtic as champions elect.
Some former Rangers men in the media have talked up the possibility (and the desirability) of a genuine title challenge but Rodgers has heard it all before and is unconcerned by the prospect of going behind enemy lines.
“They’ll want to win,” he said. “It should be a fantastic game because they’re in decent form, even though the goals they’ve scored have come against Championship teams, with all due respect.
“The one game of theirs I watched which gave a true measure was the Hibs game at Ibrox, against a team which plays with a good speed and intensity and aggression. That was a good measure of them at that level and it will be equally tough for us but we can only control our own efforts and our own game.”
When it emerged that Rangers’ players had greeted news that they had drawn holders Celtic in the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup with war cries in the dressing room, some took that response as a premature celebration but Rodgers will not be pinning any headlines to the dressing- room wall to inspire his charges.
“Not really; I’m not one to look over the fence to see what the neighbour has because that’s irrelevant to us,” he claimed. “They obviously feel really, really confident but we’ve been there before – when they were going for 55.
“So, for me, the focus is on ourselves. There’s no doubt that Graeme has done a good job in stabilising the team and giving them more of a British core, bringing in one or two players who will work and run and some supporters of the club as well, for whom it will always mean a bit more. So you can’t ignore that but it’s not a worry – you just have to concentrate on bringing your best game.”
Rodgers is undefeated in eight derby clashes thus far (six wins, two draws) but refused to be drawn on whether extending that sequence to nine in a row would scar their rivals.
“I’m not sure; that’s something for them to think about,” he said. “For us, we’ve gone to Ibrox and played very well. The games we’ve drawn against them have been at home but the concentration is just for us to go and play as a team and focus on what we can control.
“In these type of games, you can’t get carried away with all the peripheral stuff. The atmosphere is incredible at home and away and there is big expectancy and scrutiny there.
“Ultimately, though, you have to play with your brain. And that tends to be what we have done in these games – and performed well.”
Rodgers, pictured inset, also believes that being away from home will work in his side’s favour, because it will force Rangers to adopt a more expansive approach. That, in turn, will suit his creative players.
“We want to win it but, for Rangers, there’s probably a need to win it and that’s a totally different psychology in the game,” he said.
“So I’ve always tried to ensure that, when it comes to the big games, we’re entirely focused on our own performance and that we ignore the emotional hype around these occasions. But you still have to play well to win them and we aim to do that.
“I think the beauty about this game is that there will be space for us to play in. There are many times when we come up against teams who just sit in and deny you space, waiting for a singular moment to try to punish you.
“But, when you go to Ibrox, their supporters expect you to take the game to you. Which is great – that’s what big teams should do. But, the way we play, that works well for us. So it’s just a case of calming the players and allowing them to play.”
Defender Dedryck Boyata and midfielder Stuart Armstrong return to the squad after recovering from injury.