Rangers go into Sunday’s showdown with Celtic at Ibrox knowing victory would erode the Hoops’ cushion to just three points at the top of the Scottish Premiership.
The champions would still have a game in hand on second-placed Rangers, but it would nonetheless present a chance to sow the seeds of doubt in Celtic minds going into the final months of the season.
Graeme Murty‘s side have won their last six games in all competitions and were quick to publicly welcome the Scottish Cup semi-final draw that gave them Celtic last weekend.
They have raised the stakes for the latest league showdown in Govan against a Celtic team that has not been firing on all cylinders lately, bar a Europa League first leg against Zenit St Petersburg that was, typically, followed by a no-show in Russia.
So far Brendan Rodgers has been holding the Indian sign over Rangers during his tenure in Glasgow – eight games, six wins and no defeats. However, the Christmas showdown at Parkhead ended in a goalless stalemate, heralded by many as a sign of Rangers closing the gap.
Alfredo Morelos missed a glaring chance to score for the visitors in the second period but, equally, Scott Sinclair missed a gilt-edged first-half chance for Celtic.
That home performance has been more symbolic of this season’s Celtic. The dynamism of last term has faded, replaced more often than desirable by the mundane – personified nowhere more so than by Sinclair’s form.
The Englishman may not even start on Sunday although Rodgers could back his winger given he has proven himself at this venue in the past.
The attacking intent of Sinclair and Kieran Tierney on the Celtic left, squaring off against the Rangers pairing of Daniel Candeias and James Tavernier on the right, would whet the appetite. The quartet have played their part in 77 goals combined this season for their teams.
Confidence should be high in the Rangers dressing room. They’ve been winning at both half-time and full-time in six of their last seven league matches, scoring at least twice in all but one of those outings.
Breaching Celtic is the acid test. They’ve blanked in three of the previous four Glasgow derbies, with Kenny Miller’s late strike in a 5-1 mauling at this venue in April anything but a consolation on the day.
Balancing their desire to attack and hurt Celtic against a need to guard their own patch is the key for Murty and his team on Sunday. Celtic, for all they’ve misfired at times this season, are capable of lethal forward play – especially if Rangers come out to attack and leave spaces.
In December at Parkhead, Rangers successfully stifled Celtic. The next step is a first 90-minute win over their arch-rivals since March 2012. It is a big ask even given Rangers’ recent revival.
They’ve got every chance of causing Celtic problems, and should score, but their willingness to make a point in this game could prove their undoing. A cavalier approach may unwittingly bring Celtic to life.
The Bhoys can continue their recent domination of Ibrox, with Celtic to win and both teams to score available at 5/2.
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