The backdrop to the first meeting between Celtic and Rangers this season has been presented as something unknown in recent years. An Ibrox side revitalised under Steven Gerrard have been contrasted with Brendan Rodgers’ team enduring a concerted period of on-field indifference for the first time since the Irishman pitched up at the club in June 2016. Rangers ending an 11-game winless derby sequence at Parkhead on Sunday is being feverishly talked up.
To Celtic midfielder Callum McGregor that merely sets up the sort of challenge Rodgers’ side have devoured to dominate the domestic scene utterly for two seasons.
“There’s a lot of talk coming from Rangers but we’re just focusing on what we’re doing, the same way we always have done,” said the 25-year-old, yesterday named in the Scotland squad for the forthcoming games against Belgium and Albania.
“We don’t listen to what too many people outside Lennoxtown are saying. If we’re told teams are coming for us then the group of players have always responded pretty well.
“It’s up to us again to work hard in training and try to take each game as it comes. We’re doing our own thing, trying to play well and get results. You’re not always going to be able to do that over a period of two and a half years; there will always come a point where the performances dip and the results take a downturn.
“It’s up to us – players, management and coaching staff – to put that right and we’re striving to do just that and get the level back up to where it should be.
“During those first two seasons under the manager it was almost Fantasy Football at times. We’ve won everything and you set a standard where it becomes almost unthinkable to lose or even draw a game of football.
“We were outstanding during that time and we’ve laid down a marker there and it’s up to us now to live up to that. Being realistic, that can’t always happen but as long as we don’t go out and lose this week then it won’t have been too bad.
“Obviously, we’re not in the Champions League but we know how hard that competition is to get into. But we know we have a really good chance of doing something in the Europa League if we can get into that on Thursday [after the 1-1 draw away to Suduva last week]. After that we’ll be ready for the game on Sunday.”
McGregor accepts it is “the nature of the beast” that in Glasgow one of the big two will tend to be painted as on the way up as the other is sketched as struggling. “I think it is – if one is down the chat among mates is that the other side is coming for you and that’s just the way that Celtic/Rangers has always been and will continue to be,” continued McGregor.
Yet, the fact is that both teams have issues. And owing to their bids to make the Europa League group stages on Thursday, more pressing matters to contend with immediately than facing each other.
Rangers require to roll up to Glasgow east end after returning from Russia only two-and-a-half days’ earlier. The shipping of goals in the 3-3 draw at Motherwell will concern as they seek to protect a 1-0 advantage earned at home against Ufa. Celtic have already had to cope with such travelling. The 1-0 victory at home to Hamilton on Sunday courtesy of a goal from previously self-exiled, transfer-seeking Dedryck Boyata followed their arrival home in the early hours of Friday morning from Lithuania. The reverse fixtures this week could be a factor in Sunday’s confrontation, McGregor acknowledges.
“They’ll have to deal with getting home at 4am on Friday and we need to take advantage of that,” he said. “It’s something which does affect you. You come back and you think you feel good but, five, ten minutes into the game, you can feel it in your legs. That can be difficult, obviously, but you just need to get on with it as best you can. Coming back from Russia is the hardest, just down to the distance.
“You get back home and get into bed but you’re up again first thing in the morning to get back into the training ground and do your recovery so it’s quite tough but that’s the job.”
McGregor gives full backing to his manager over the need to make the job of the current Celtic squad all the more difficult. Rodgers intimated last week that he believed there remained a pressing need to bring in “three or four” players before the transfer window closes on Friday in order to drive up standards.
“I think it’s vital to any group,” the midfielder said. “We went through two years of winning everything and then you come in and look for fresh faces to keep you going and keep your performance high,” the midfielder said. “It keeps the group competitive and playing for places and it would help to get one or two in with the right quality to push the boys on.
“There’s no point getting panic buys or something that won’t help the group. We need help and to get that in would be good for the group. I’ve also heard the manager say that if we don’t get anyone in then this group is good enough to have another good season.”