Former stars expect Rangers to give Celtic toughest test for years

It is a brave man that predicts the weather at Loch Lomond due to the often infuriating change in climate but there was consensus on the Bonnie Banks yesterday.

Mark Wilson and Alex Rae sit firmly on either side of the Old Firm divide but they agree that Sunday’s first meeting of the season between Celtic and Rangers could be the closest in years.

Other than two hard-fought draws – both at Celtic Park and both achieved by Graeme Murty – Rangers in recent times have been swept aside by their great rivals, who have inflicted some serious pain into the bargain.

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Two 5-1 wins in 2016-2017 were followed by a 4-0 and 5-0 trouncing last season as Brendan Rodgers’ side achieved the unprecedented feat of consecutive trebles.

Former Rangers midfielder Alex Rae, left, and ex-Celtic full-back Mark Wilson preview Sundays fixture in the water at Loch Lomond. Picture: SNS.
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However, the revival of Rangers under Steven 
Gerrard coupled with some serious internal strife at 
Celtic Park over recruitment – or the lack of it – and the extraordinary situation with Dedryck Boyata has altered the landscape.

There is also every likelihood that Olympique Marseille will test Celtic’s resolve over Moussa Dembele, right, before Friday.

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Wilson said: “The most exciting thing about Sunday’s game is how things have changed, how things have swung within three months. Last May everything was rosy for Celtic, Rangers were all over the place and didn’t know where they were going in terms of management and players.

“Now it’s all swung. It seems rosy for Rangers, there seems to be a bit of a cloud hanging over Celtic just now in terms of transfers plus the Boyata situation.

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“It’s amazing to think there is this sort of mini crisis at Celtic. Three months ago you’re celebrating a double treble, you’re having a victory parade along Celtic Way. It was all going great.

“It just shows that if there’s a wee bit of unrest behind the scenes, in terms of a clash with Peter Lawwell, it goes on to the pitch. And I don’t think the performances in Europe have helped that.

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“There also could be a scenario where we wake up on Saturday morning and both Dembele and Boyata are away.

“I think Boyata should go but Brendan Rodgers will be desperate to keep Dembele at least because he is his go-to guy in the big games.”

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Gerrard has transformed Rangers into a stronger unit on the brink of qualification to the group phase of the Europa League – even if they suffered a late blow at Motherwell on Sunday.

The turnaround gives Rae hope that a painful 11-game winless run in the derby may end. He said: “In the last two years Rangers haven’t been able to lay a glove on Celtic. Physically they haven’t been able to cope with them but if you look at them now they seem to have addressed that and that is encouraging for Rangers. Celtic seem to be stuttering a little bit, you look at the Dedryck Boyata situation and then the manager has called for new players.

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“I don’t think Rangers had ever been this far behind before. Even in the mid-Eighties when I was an apprentice and 
Celtic were dominant we would get the odd 
win over them. It has been too long since Rangers won.

“Scott Brown has cantered through these matches in the past couple of years but I look at this Rangers team and I see guys who are more mobile and powerful. I would expect Scott to have a more difficult game on his hands. But players will have to be brave on the ball at Parkhead.

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“Someone asked me would 
Steven Gerrard be worried about this game, but this is a guy who has done everything there is to do in the game.”

Reflecting on the cut in allocation for away-end tickets at Old Firm games, Rae added: “The players will be more nervous than the manager. Parkhead is a hostile place at the best of times and that is when Rangers had 7,000 fans there, so it will be even worse this time with only 800.

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“Old Firm games at Parkhead are always tough. I remember back in the early 2000s when Rangers had some real quality, they still hadn’t beaten Celtic there for five years.”

So how might they do it on Sunday? A returning hero might provide the answer.

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Rae added: “We were debating whether Kyle Lafferty, inset above, is a liability because he plays on the edge. I think he had 13 yellows and a red card for Hearts. So you know what you are getting from this guy.

“But the one thing he brings to the table is goals in big games. I was talking to Ally McCoist and he said Lafferty has scored in each of the last three games where Rangers have won the title. He’s scored four goals in a year against Celtic. Rangers have not been able to do that as a team!”