Celtic v Rangers: Is Steven Gerrard facing Brendan Rodgers a game-changer?
|Celtic v Rangers|
|Venue: Celtic Park Date: 2 September, 12:00 BST|
|Coverage: Listen to BBC Radio Scotland and follow live text commentary on the BBC Sport website. Plus highlights on Sportscene.|
In certain parts of Scottish football, there is a fondness for billing the Old Firm game as the craziest thing on legs. The maddest, loudest, most intense, most colourful clash around. A compelling meeting of two Glasgow giants. An 'I was there' occasion.
Maybe - probably - it was once, but not recently. What Steven Gerrard and his new Rangers team are attempting to do when the bunfight begins anew at Celtic Park on Sunday is to make the fixture a thunderous contest again instead of the procession it has been for much of Brendan Rodgers' time in Glasgow.
For Gerrard, it will be his first Old Firm game. For Rodgers, his former manager at Liverpool, it will be his 12th. In that time, Rodgers' Celtic have won nine and drawn two. The cumulative score across five meetings last season was 14-2. The season before it was 16-4. It's not been a rivalry; it's been a rout.
The Old Firm moniker has looked like a relic of the past. In the Rodgers era, Aberdeen, Hearts, Hibernian and Kilmarnock have all taken more points off Celtic than their city rivals.
For Rangers people, April was the cruellest month. Just when they thought their football lives couldn't get any more painful after the 4-0 Scottish Cup semi-final drubbing, along came a 5-0 in the league at Celtic Park a fortnight later like a haymaker to the solar plexus.
Celtic secured the title that day. They were as brilliant as Rangers were brutal. An early goal for Odsonne Edouard then four more in a dozen minutes either side of the break.
Rangers win could be 'game-changer'
It's been a recurring tale of mice and men. Rangers had got themselves into such a dreary, soft-touch state on the field - they dropped 44 league points last season - that the only solution to their woes looked to be some kind of celestial amalgam of Scot Symon, Bill Struth, Graeme Souness and Walter Smith - the great managers of their past.
What they got was Gerrard. What we have now is Rodgers versus Gerrard, an absorbing game within a game. There will be as many eyes on the managers on the touchline as on the players on the pitch.
In the preamble to Sunday, the temptation will be to throw it all back to their time together as manager and captain at Liverpool and bill it as professor versus pupil. Gerrard might be a rookie, but he's been formidable. He's ignored all the talk of Rangers being a footballing basket-case and has gone about systematically addressing all that ailed the team over the past few years.
He has brought energy and confidence and authority. It's early, but Rangers look hungrier and more durable.
The players give the impression that they know who and what they're playing for. That point seemed lost on some of their predecessors.
- Did Gerrard's change of shape cost Rangers at Motherwell?
- Rangers must learn from Motherwell 'education'
Most of Gerrard's signings are contributing. He has taken the team from last season and put much of it in the bin. Allan McGregor, Connor Goldson and Nikola Katic didn't have their best day out in the 3-3 draw against Motherwell on Sunday, but they have been excellent otherwise.
The Rangers side that faced Croatia's Osijek in the Europa League had seven new players in the starting XI. The team that removed Slovenia's Maribor in the following round had eight.
Rangers are unbeaten in 11 games under Gerrard before Thursday's Europa play-off against Ufa in Russia. After 11 games of last season, they'd already lost to Celtic, Hibs and Progres Niederkorn, the fourth best team in Luxembourg. Eleven without loss is their best run since they were in the Championship in 2016.
If they avoid defeat at Celtic Park then we'll know that things have really changed. A point would be a very decent result, but a victory could be interpreted as a game-changer, confirmation that Gerrard and his team are on the march for real.
Can 'flat' Celtic raise game again?
There's a flipside, of course, and it's what makes this such an intriguing game. Things will look decidedly less rosy for Rangers if they lose to Celtic again. Their progress in Europe has been impressive, but in the Premiership they've not been as sure-footed.
They have five points from a possible nine. A defeat on Sunday would make it five from 12 - and suddenly the feel-good wouldn't feel so good.
Gerrard will take his players to Celtic Park in the knowledge that this is the ground where humiliation has been heaped upon his club for a couple of seasons. But is it the same Celtic? Are they still capable of raising their game and battering their visitors in the style of before?
Rodgers' side are a little flat right now. They were flat at various times last season as well, but they had the capacity on the home front to go again and deliver some breathless stuff when they absolutely needed to.
Maybe that will be the case again, but Rodgers has not been the same effervescent personality. He's made jibes at his board over the lack of signings, jibes at his defenders over their lack of hunger and pride. His words after the 1-1 draw away to Suduva in Lithuania last week were possibly the most downbeat of his entire time in charge.
Nothing has been easy. There's been a spoke in the wheel. No Champions League football. No new blood.
A loss to AEK Athens, a loss to Hearts, a banner in the crowd before Sunday's game against Hamilton Accies declaring one his players - Dedryck Boyata - unfit to wear the jersey.
The mood music around Parkhead hasn't been good. Sunday will tell us if this is truly a problem or just a minor phase they're going through.
Rodgers has spent two seasons dealing with softballs from the media because of his relentless success, but the questions of late haven't been as easy to handle.
A resounding win on Sunday puts it to bed, but the probability is that he's looking more closely at this Rangers team and this Rangers manager than any of the 11 Rangers teams and the three Rangers managers he has faced before.