Celtic v Rangers: Visitors have proven credentials in Old Firm battle
|Scottish Premiership: Celtic v Rangers|
|Venue: Celtic Park, Glasgow Date: Sunday, 29 December Time: 12:30 GMT|
|Coverage: Listen on BBC Radio Scotland and follow live text commentary on the BBC Sport Scotland website and app|
One year ago, Ibrox shuddered with euphoria and tremored with hope for the majority inside.
Twelve games without victory in this fixture had been thrashed into the dirt. The weighty burden of bursting a winless record against Celtic evaporated into the Glasgow sky along with the raucous noise emanating out from all four sides of the Govan ground.
At the same time, it was a victory, delivered by the boot of Ryan Jack and a telling deflection off Scott Brown, that elevated Steven Gerrard's Rangers level on points with Celtic going into the winter break. Finally out of the Old Firm wilderness, Rangers could at last see the wood from the trees in a title race.
Twelve months on to the very day, Gerrard's side arrive at Celtic Park with a familiar landscape in front of them, and a different but perhaps even bigger point to prove.
A false dawn was heralded on that day with the rivals from across Glasgow cantering to an eighth straight league title by nine points five months later. This time around, Celtic play the role of new year hosts with the home comfort of a five-point cushion at their backs, having played a game more. Yet, there has been enough in the preamble to suggest that this game may have a telling impact on the trajectory of the campaigns for both of these foes as they career rapidly towards the second half of a fraught and busy campaign.
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Gerrard's side have improved... but so have Lennon's
A year ago, Celtic's peerless state of existence in the Old Firm derby in recent times went with a whimper amid the Ibrox delirium. With a line being led by the inexperienced Mikey Johnston, there was no guile to craft openings for Brendan Rodgers' team. The normally dynamic force of Callum McGregor, Ryan Christie and James Forrest was swept away in a possessed flurry in the middle of the park.
While the personnel has not changed rapidly since that day, strides have been made on both halves of the divide. Celtic have 10 points more this time around than they did 12 months ago (having played a game fewer), while Rangers have five extra points bagged having played three games fewer. Both sides also have eight more goals, although each has let in a handful more.
Since Rangers managed to get the Old Firm monkey off of their back, they repeated the feat in May with a 2-0 win, yet Celtic have gone on to win on three occasions. What does that tell us? Well there has been improvement in both camps and, perhaps, no longer is this fixture solely dictated by Celtic's mood or form. There is now a school of thought that if Rangers play to their strengths, real problems can be caused for the Scottish champions.
That fact was evident in this month's League Cup final, which will offer both encouragement and emotional scarring for Rangers. Gerrard's side were unplayable at times in a swashbuckling Hampden tie. They dominated the ball in key areas of the pitch, they outshot a weakened Celtic by three to one, while seven of their efforts landed on target compared to one solitary strike for the team in green and white.
The crucial fact in all of this is, of course, is that that one solitary - albeit contentious - strike is the only one that made it into the back of the net via Christopher Jullien to claim a fourth consecutive League Cup for the holders. Chuck in a missed penalty and the fact Celtic finished the game with 10 men, it is understandable perhaps that Jack, the goal hero of that day at Ibrox last December, was reduced to tears on the pitch, such was the trauma of letting a huge chance for victory slip.
While highlighting Rangers' profligacy, it speaks to an unrelenting ability to get the job done by Celtic in crucial matches. Let's not forget Celtic topped a Europa League group containing Lazio and Rennes, and swagger into this one on the back of 11 straight league victories. While Rangers' belief in themselves has been flamed in recent weeks, the fire of confidence currently roaring inside the Celtic camp is only growing.
Goals, strikers & breaking hoodoos
It seems a somewhat obvious statement, but a fascinating facet of Sunday's fixture will revolve around both men at the apex of their team's respective attacks. In Odsonne Edouard, Celtic have a striker who, after helping to turn the League Cup final having come off the bench, has scored two goals in his last four matches, taking his season tally to 16 in 30. Not only that, but the Frenchman has helped deliver 35% of Celtic's league goals, including eight assists. The fledgling frontline that took to the field at Ibrox a year ago, or indeed at Hampden, is not the one Rangers will look to keep at bay here.
At the other end, the enigma that is Alfredo Morelos has the potential to define this game in so many ways. Undoubtedly the most prolific striker in the league, he has 12 more goals than his Celtic counterpart, but his role at Hampden earlier this month only heightened the hoodoo that lingers over the Colombian in this fixture. A missed penalty and a glut of chances squandered added to the myth that somehow the footballing gods have decreed that he will never score against the team from the east side of the city.
After being sent off for the first time this season by gesturing to Motherwell fans, Morelos returned from suspension to sink Kilmarnock last weekend. The 23-year-old is a prodigious talent without question, but Rangers' success or failure may live or die by him breaking through his Celtic barrier. If he does so, the belief in not only his own mind, but throughout the Rangers dressing room, will rocket higher than the plane carrying the squad to Dubai in the coming days.
While the circumstances of this fixture may be familiar to those of 12 months ago, the mindset of both camps will be significantly different. Rangers know how to beat Celtic and came painfully close to lifting a major piece of silverware just three weeks ago. Their response to that bloody nose has brought three domestic wins and Europa League progression, and the blue half of the city will feel a point is there to be proven at 12:30.
Equally, Lennon knows his team were "lucky" at Hampden, with James Forrest speaking on Friday about the confidence of being able to win without playing well. "Many would feel we didn't play our best, and that's a fair assessment," said the Celtic manager. "We still won.
"People talk about the cup final, we will talk about the performance at Ibrox where we were totally dominant and won the game comfortably. We look forward to it, we will be as strong as we can."
While the game a year ago did not signal a power shift in Glasgow, it did change the dynamic of this tumultuous and compelling fixture. No league title was ever won and lost with half of the season still to play, no matter how seismic the result. But, make no mistake, the after effects of the latest plot twist on Sunday, whatever it may be, might well linger for some time.