We’ve got a really tasty Premiership round of fixtures this weekend, with almost every single…
Brendan Rodgers is a lot smarter than he often lets on. Looking ahead to Sunday’s Old Firm clash with Rangers, the Celtic manager was asked about the age-old cliche: pressure. The former Swansea and Liverpool manager, well-trained in media relations, decided to flip the question on its head and suggested his opposite number, Graeme Murty, was actually the man facing far more of the heat, because his side often falter at home.
The Celtic boss doesn’t really believe that. His media team probably didn’t believe it either. Nor did the journalists sitting a few feet away from him. In fact, every Celtic and Rangers fan is also perfectly aware of the fact that any pressure applied to Sunday’s game will be funneled directly through the Celtic dugout – whether they’re willing to admit it or not.
Indeed, the coming clash between the Scottish Premiership’s first and second-placed sides is so much more than a potential “six-pointer” in what many have convinced themselves to be a genuine title race. It’s a test of Rodgers and his Celtic side. And whether they’re willing to once again exert their dominance and keep Rangers in a place they firmly believe they belong.
This situation is entirely of Rodgers’ own making. His historical treble-winning, debut season set a standard and degree of expectations that may ultimately prove impossible to match, but for the time being is exactly how the Celtic manager will indeed be judged.
Winning the Premiership by a handsome 30-point margin over Aberdeen and an incredible 39 points above Rangers was always going to send Celtic fans delirious. But the flip side to such euphoria is a potent yardstick that will be used in a few months time to decide whether or not Rodgers’ side have progressed or regressed. Specifically in relation to Rangers’ notable improvements.
To the Celtic manager’s credit, so far each and every challenger to his dominance has met a familiar fate. Ask Derek McInnes, who has tried every tactic in the book to best a superior Celtic side with little luck, just how ruthless Rodgers can be. Or Stephen Robinson, whose Motherwell side had the audacity to dream of causing an upset in the League Cup final earlier in the year and found themselves physically and emotionally drained after a three-match showdown.
Even Rangers fans can attest to Rodgers’ unquenchable desire for first place. Under the questionable stewardship of Pedro Caixinha, the Celtic manager was quick to exert his dominance with a 9-1 aggregate scoreline over his Portuguese counterpart in just three games. With all the optimism in the world, Caixinha never looked like a coach ready to go toe-to-toe with Rodgers.
Yet Rangers now have a new man on the sidelines. Perhaps just as peculiar as his predecessor, Murty’s baby-faced reactions, soft smile and humble, gentle demeanour hardly hark back to the cold, authoritarian managers that have brought success to Rangers in the past. Yet here he stands with two draws from two games against Celtic’s monarchical leader.
Indeed, if Murty has simply refused to partake in his club’s exuberant and recurring contributions to the “banter years” over the past two years, then it is perfectly showcased through the manner in which Rangers have not only steadied the ship under their interim coach but wholeheartedly excelled, while rebuilding a squad that has raced to second place in no time at all.
While Rodgers was galavanting over Europe, hoping to expand the horizons of his success at Celtic, Murty has slowly but surely built notable momentum right under his nose. And despite the contrast that may remain in quality between both squads there’s plenty of reason to believe Rangers could cause all sorts of problems on Sunday.
If Rodgers’ dominance of the Premiership is Scottish football’s equivalent of the gold standard then it should be noted that the Celtic manager’s points-per-game tally of 2.29 is only marginally better than Murty’s 2.11. And that over the past 15 league games Celtic have won 31 points to Rangers’ 34.
If nothing else, Murty has spent his 19 games in charge proving that Rangers are indeed the second best team in Scotland. And on Sunday he gets a chance to take a shot at the only manager above him in the league table.
The result from this coming game won’t impact the league and it probably won’t alter the eventual destination of the last, two remaining pieces of silverware on offer between now and May either. Yet it is an opportunity for Rodgers to stand up to this new contender – to this bubbling red, white and blue revolution in Govan – and put him back in place.