July 19, 2024

Celtic vs Rangers: Who will win key Old Firm in Scottish Premiership title race | Football News


A week can be a long time in football.

On the morning of December 9, Celtic were eight points clear of Rangers, albeit having played a game more, with the Ibrox side facing a daunting trip to Spain in a make-or-break Europa League clash before a visit to Hampden for the League Cup final.

By 5.15pm on December 17, that gap had been cut to five points with Rangers now having two games in hand, after booking a last-16 spot in the Europa League and picking up the first silverware of the season with victory over Aberdeen at the national stadium.

Saturday 30th December 11:30am

Kick off 12:30pm

Celtic and Brendan Rodgers have steadied the ship since their December blip but, for the first time in a long time in the Scottish Premiership, we have a genuine title race on our hands heading into what was once the traditional Ne’er Day (New Year’s Day) Old Firm fixture.

Back-to-back league defeats for the first time in more than a decade at the hands of Kilmarnock and Hearts led to some unrest in the stands at Celtic Park against Steven Naismith’s side. Those supporters have been used to seeing a fairly relentless Celtic side take on all comers under Ange Postecoglou over the past 18 months or so but now there is a feeling the champions may have weak spots for the first time in a while.

With the Australian in charge, Rangers were largely waiting on a slip-up that never materialised but those defeats – the loss to Hearts was Celtic’s first in 52 domestic matches at Parkhead – have opened the door to a title race that even many Gers fans had previously assumed was locked shut for another season.

Rangers are unbeaten in 16 in all competitions under Philippe Clement since he was named as Michael Beale’s successor on October 15. They have been battling an ever-growing injury list for the majority of the season but the Belgian has galvanised the players, the fanbase and the club as a whole. Indeed, at one point Celtic’s lead over Rangers stood at 10 points in the Scottish Premiership.

Rangers under Philippe Clement

They will be unable to leapfrog Celtic with victory on December 30 after their game in midweek against Ross County was postponed due to adverse weather but, win or lose in the east end of Glasgow, Rangers are contenders again – a possibility that seemed remote after three losses in their opening seven league games.

In the blue corner…

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Highlights of Rangers’ last win at Celtic Park in October 2020

In February 2022, Postecoglou used this fixture to propel his side to the Premiership title. Rangers had been four points clear when Giovanni van Bronckhorst succeeded Steven Gerrard at Ibrox but their league form began to dip and the Australian took full advantage.

A 3-0 win at Parkhead saw Celtic exploit their momentum and Postecoglou barely looked back until he left for Tottenham in the summer. Psychologically, it felt like an important result.

Rangers will not have the opportunity to capitalise on their own momentum by topping the table this weekend – but they will cross the city in buoyant mood at the opportunity in front of them.

Clement has enjoyed a fine start to his tenure in Glasgow. An accusation levelled at his predecessor Michael Beale is that he failed to win big matches during his time in charge at Ibrox. All of his biggest matches were, naturally, against Celtic.

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - SEPTEMBER 03: Rangers manager Michael Beale looks dejected during a cinch Premiership match between Rangers and Celtic at Ibrox Stadium, on September 03, 2023, in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)
Rangers lost the first Old Firm clash of the season under former boss Michael Beale

Rangers fans lamented an opportunity missed when Beale’s side conceded a late goal to draw 2-2 in the Ne’er Day fixture at Ibrox last season, when a win could have potentially re-ignited a title race that looked flat a few months before.

Holding on to claim the points in that game would have bought Beale a bit more trust from the fans ahead of the rest of the campaign.

However, a Scottish Cup semi-final defeat, a League Cup final loss and another disappointing result at Parkhead meant Beale had little to hang on to in terms of big-game wins and it would eventually play a part in his exit from the club.

This season’s 1-0 loss in the first derby at Ibrox meant Beale left the club with one win in six in Old Firm games – an unsustainable record for any manager on either side of the city.

Clement, in contrast, has already passed two major tests in his time in charge. Rangers beat Real Betis in Seville in their final Europa League group match earlier this month to ensure they topped the group and made it to the last 16 of the competition. It was the first time the club had beaten Spanish opposition in Spain and saw them avoid dropping out of the tournament.

Rangers' Cyriel Dessers celebrates with Abdallah Sima as he scores to make it 2-1 vs Real Betis
Cyriel Dessers and Abdallah Sima impressed as Rangers won at Real Betis

Three days later they won their first League Cup trophy in over a decade with a 1-0 win over Aberdeen at Hampden. Even if Rangers were expected to win the competition after Celtic were eliminated in the second round, Clement still had to deliver on that expectation and already has credit in the bank with supporters that Beale just did not have.

Rangers have dropped just two points in the league since Clement was appointed and have conceded just three goals in that time.

Rangers verdict
The Verdict from Hampden Park as Rangers won the League Cup

The next test comes in his first Old Firm on Saturday at Celtic Park, however. None of Rangers’ last seven managers – including caretakers – to face Celtic at least once won their first meeting between the sides. Indeed, Ally McCoist was the last Rangers boss to do so in September 2011.

The 49-year-old has experience of derby clashes in Belgium, with a decent record in the ‘The Topper’ fixture against Anderlecht as Club Brugge manager, and in Ligue 1 as Monaco boss against Nice in the Derby de la Côte d’Azur.

Few games will have prepared him for what comes this weekend, however, but Clement will demand his side is not overwhelmed by the occasion.

Rodgers rebuilding

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Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers criticises his side’s hunger as they lost 2-0 to Hearts in their first home league defeat in 52 games

Brendan Rodgers apologised to the Celtic supporters after his side’s performance at home to Hearts on December 16 but has had a reaction since then.

Back-to-back wins over Livingston and Dundee have restored their five-point lead at the top of the table, even if they have played two games more than Rangers.

Despite that, Celtic have not quite been firing on all cylinders this season – also dropping points at home to St Johnstone and Motherwell, as well as losing to Kilmarnock in the League Cup in August. Indeed, Celtic have already dropped 12 points this season after dropping just 15 in the whole of the last campaign.

Rangers have picked up 28 points from 30 in the league since Clement was appointed while Celtic have claimed 26 points from a possible 36.

The Celtic boss has made no secret of his desire to add ‘quality’ to his squad. The club could strengthen in January with key players including Hyeon-Gyu Oh and Hyun-Jun Yang called up to the Asia Cup and the manager seemingly not happy with options throughout his squad but that will not help ahead of this game.

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - DECEMBER 06: Celtic's Oh Hyeon-gyu celebrates with Kyogo Furuhashi after making it 4-0 during a cinch Premiership match between Celtic and Hibernian at Celtic Park, on December 06, 2023, in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)
Hyeon-Gyu Oh has been included in the South Korea squad for the Asia Cup

What will help, however, is the manager’s own experience in this derby.

Rodgers has an outstanding record in the Old Firm. The Northern Irishman has lost just once in this fixture across his two spells in Glasgow, winning 11 out of 14 matches – meaning he has the best win ratio of any manager in Old Firm games at 79 per cent.

Much has been made of Rangers potentially cutting the gap to two points with two games in hand with a win but Rodgers will relish the opportunity to flip that narrative and send his side eight points clear going into the New Year.

Even if Rangers have games in hand, a Celtic win on Saturday would actually better the advantage they had over their rivals at the top of the table when Clement arrived at Ibrox. It could be Rodgers’ own psychological blow to his rivals, much like the one Postecoglou landed nearly two years ago.

Brendan Rodgers led Celtic to a 5-1 win over Rangers in his first spell in charge
Brendan Rodgers led Celtic to a 5-1 win over Rangers in his first spell in charge

Rodgers was in charge when Celtic dismantled Mark Warburton’s Rangers side 5-1 in September 2016, with the same scoreline at Ibrox the following April. A 5-0 win in April 2018 secured the title for Celtic and the last Old Firm of his first spell ended with a 1-0 win over Steven Gerrard’s side.

Things have changed at Ibrox since those one-sided wins when Rangers were attempting to regroup after years in the lower leagues. Rodgers will know the squad and manager he faces on Saturday pose a far more serious threat to his and Celtic’s title charge this time around but those experiences can only be a positive for the hosts.

Several members of Rodgers’ squad also know what it takes to get over the line in this game. Callum McGregor was pivotal for Rodgers in his first spell in charge and he remains so now, especially if Rangers field a makeshift midfield due to a raft of injuries.

Rodgers has endured a bumpier return to Parkhead than he possibly envisaged when he agreed to a second spell in Glasgow, but victory on Saturday would certainly quell any lingering unrest in the Celtic Park stands going into the winter break.

Injury worries and no away fans

Celtic's Cameron Carter-Vickers was forced off against Dundee
Celtic’s Cameron Carter-Vickers was forced off against Dundee

There are a variety of other factors which could play a part in what happens on Saturday at lunchtime.

Both teams have injury concerns, with Celtic waiting to find out the extent of Cameron Carter-Vickers’ hamstring injury that forced him off in the win over Dundee. Rodgers was hopeful the defender would be fit for Saturday.

“He’s hopefully OK,” Rodgers said. “He felt a bit of tightness and we had said to him before that he didn’t need to be a hero. If he felt anything, just come off. We’re hoping he’s OK but we’ll find out in the next couple of days.”

The Celtic manager also gave his strongest suggestion yet that Reo Hatate and Liel Abada could feature. Abada last played for Celtic in their victory at Ibrox on September 3 before suffering a thigh injury while training with Israel, while Hatate has been out for two months with a hamstring injury and has been a major miss for Celtic this season.

Liel Abada and Reo Hatate could return for Celtic vs Rangers
Liel Abada and Reo Hatate could return for Celtic vs Rangers

“They could be around it,” Rodgers said. “It’s another thing being ready to start, of course. Liel looked really good on the field when he trained with the group [on Christmas Day]. We kept him at home to do another session to build him up. We’ve missed his running, his goals. He’ll be brilliant for us for the second part of the season.

“Reo is at a good level but not a level to start. We’ll see how he goes over these next few days. He’s training hard, working well and it will be like having two new players when we get those two back.”

Clement, meanwhile, was facing the possibility of more injury woes after Connor Goldson pulled up in Rangers’ 2-0 win over Motherwell at Fir Park on Christmas Eve.

Connor Goldson is a doubt for Rangers
Connor Goldson is a doubt for Rangers

The Rangers boss was without Nico Raskin, Tom Lawrence, Ryan Jack, Borna Barisic, Ben Davies, John Lundstram, Kemar Roofe, Jose Cifuentes and Danilo for the trip to Fir Park, with Goldson replaced by John Souttar in the 86th minute.

Clement admitted he was a “little bit fed up” talking about injuries but on Goldson he said: “We take it day by day what the situation is and what the fitness of the players is. It’s difficult to plan in advance so I’m living from day to day.”

Lundstram, in particular, has been vastly improved under Clement and the manager will be praying the midfielder is ready for the visit to Parkhead.

There will definitely be no Rangers supporters at the game, however.

There were no away fans at the first derby fixture this season at Ibrox and likewise at the last two league games between Celtic and Rangers at the end of last season due to a ticketing dispute over fan safety.

Recent Ne’er Day meetings

Despite Celtic’s domestic dominance over the last decade Rangers have a decent record in the traditional Ne’er Day Old Firm fixture in recent times. Over the past five years, Rangers have only lost one of the fixtures at the turn of the year.

Rangers 2 Celtic 2 – January 2, 2023 – Ibrox

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The Old Firm drew at Ibrox in January

Michael Beale’s first Old Firm fixture in the Ibrox dugout ended in frustration for the home side as Kyogo Furuhashi’s late equaliser all but ended any hopes Rangers had of catching Celtic in the title race. Ryan Kent and James Tavernier had turned the game around for Rangers after Daizen Maeda gave his side an early lead but it was Kyogo’s late strike that preserved Celtic’s nine-point lead at the top of the table.

Celtic 3-0 Rangers – February 2, 2022 – Celtic Park

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Celtic moved top of the table with a comprehensive win over Rangers last February

Celtic ended a seven-game winless run in Old Firm fixtures and went top of the league with a 3-0 hammering of Rangers at Parkhead. Reo Hatate scored twice before Liel Abada finished the game as a contest before half-time. Postecoglou’s side did not look back on their way to the title.

Rangers 1-0 Celtic – January 2, 2021 – Ibrox

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Rangers moved closer to the league title in January 2021

Rangers moved 19 points clear of Celtic on their way to their 55th title thanks to a 1-0 victory over their Old Firm rivals. Nir Bitton was sent off before a Callum McGregor own goal sealed the points for Steven Gerrard’s side – their third Ne’er Day victory in a row.

Celtic 1-2 Rangers – December 29, 2019 – Celtic Park

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In 2019 Rangers won their first Old Firm at Celtic Park in almost 10 years

Celtic were five points clear at the top of the league having played a game more going into the game at Parkhead but strikes from Ryan Kent and Nikola Katic, either side of an Odsonne Edouard goal cut that gap, with Rangers picking up their first victory at Parkhead in nearly a decade.

Rangers 1-0 Celtic – December 30, 2018 – Ibrox

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Rangers win in 2018 is the only Old Firm Brendan Rodgers has lost

Ryan Jack was the only goalscorer as Steven Gerrard’s Rangers inflicted a first, and only, Old Firm defeat on Brendan Rodgers with a 1-0 win at a raucous Ibrox. It was their first Old Firm win in 13 games in all competitions.

Watch Celtic vs Rangers live on Sky Sports Football from 11.30am on Saturday; kick-off 12.30pm.

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