Graham Ruthven looks at the fortunes of both clubs as the Old Firm derby approaches
Thirty three points. The difference between Celtic and Rangers this season can be quantified, recorded in the appearance of the Scottish Premiership table.
Of course, there is a team (Aberdeen) currently between the two Glasgow teams, but such is the nature of the rivalry, green is always compared with blue in Scotland. One does not go without the other.
Most of the time Celtic and Rangers peer at each other from opposite ends of the city, but they will clash directly this weekend. Brendan Rodgers’ side have already clinched the title, albeit unofficially, with the Ibrox club still without a manager following the exit of Mark Warburton last month. But the Old Firm derby presents another landmark moment in the Scottish football season.
The gap between Celtic and Rangers has never been wider. One has enjoyed dominance over the other before, like in the 1960s and 1970s when Celtic won the European Cup, or in the 1990s when Rangers won a joint-record nine league championships in succession. But this season has set a new precedent.
Under Rodgers, Celtic have become history makers. The Hoops have bettered the club record unbeaten run set in the days of Jock Stein and are now chasing the record for the biggest winning margin of any league champions anywhere in the sport. From 27 league fixtures, they have dropped points just once, racking up 22 straight wins since a 2-2 draw with Inverness all the way back in September.
This is in stark contrast to what has happened at Rangers this season. Much was expected of the Govan side upon their return to the top flight after four years in the lower leagues, but those expectations are now in tatters. Warburton, the man hailed by the club’s supporters as a near saviour of the club having won the Scottish Championship title last season, is gone, exiting Ibrox in a cloud of controversy and confusion last month.
The playing style and identity that was the hallmark of Warburton’s debut season at Rangers disappeared, with a scattergun transfer approach reflecting a lack of direction at the club that soon manifested itself on the pitch. While Joey Barton pitched up at Ibrox only to leave having played just eight games, Moussa Dembele signed for Celtic and is now valued at around £40 million, with Europe’s elite chasing the 20-year-old striker who has netted 12 times in his last six appearances.
Rodgers just this week spoke about the holistic approach that has worked so well for Celtic since his appointment last summer, indirectly comparing the club with their directionless rivals on the other side of the city. “Where I’m fortunate here is that the board ooze quality,” he explained. “They have a strategic approach to it. There’s a strategy in place here for how they want to work which was one of the big attractions for me coming in. So that then allows me to get on with my work and improve the football club.”
The sight of caretaker manager Graeme Murty taking his place in the Celtic Park dugout will present the ultimate illustration of where Rangers find themselves right now. Anything less than a humiliating defeat at the hands of their great rivals will be deemed a success, although Murty wants to use the expectations - or lack of - held of his side to Rangers’ advantage.
“It's easy for me," he said ahead of the match on Friday. “I just show them everything that's been written about them, how they've been written off and Celtic are fantastic and we're going to get an absolute doing. I don't actually have to motivate them, I just have to say 'this is what the world thinks about you’. You can either listen to the noise or be really close together and go and show them what we're about. Thankfully, [the media] have all done my job for me.”
Derby matches are defined by cliches, with bragging rights always on the line. That, of course, is especially true of this derby, with Rangers playing only to restore some pride to what has become a season of indignation and Celtic playing only to serve them yet more indignity. 33 points is a staggering gap, but not even that truly depicts the difference between the two clubs.