If Old Firm derbies define a Scottish season, it is fitting Sunday’s version sums up the curious nature of the campaign to date.
A Celtic success, the most likely outcome, would all but confirm the reclaiming of the Premiership title. Ange Postecoglou’s team would be nine points and at least 20 goals ahead of Rangers with three matches to play.
Yet an alternative scenario cannot be completely discounted, demonstrated by Rangers’ deserved success over their oldest foes in the Scottish Cup semi-final on 17 April.
Rangers’ season has been one of epic highs – that Hampden triumph and victory over Borussia Dortmund en route to the Europa League semi-final – but horrible lows. It has been forgotten that the 10 men of Malmö bundled Rangers out of the Champions League at the qualifying phase. On Boxing Day, Rangers held a seemingly unassailable six-point lead at the summit; subsequent stumbles against Aberdeen, Ross County and Dundee United plus a trouncing at Celtic Park collided with Postecoglou’s side finding their sweet spot.
It is unfair to declare Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s appointment as the successor to Steven Gerrard as a mistake. Rangers’ European run, very much alive despite a 1-0 defeat to RB Leipzig on Thursday, is worthy of huge respect. Should Rangers take the ultimate Europa League prize – another possibility it would be unwise to laugh off – domestic failings will barely matter.
For now, given Celtic lie in immediate opposition, it is merely fair to highlight the contrasting fortunes of sides who were separated by 25 points, in Rangers’ favour, when last season concluded.
It may be denied now, but a noisy percentage of the Rangers support declared contentment when Gerrard hot-footed it to Villa Park in November. There was a sense Rangers had gone stale under the former Liverpool captain and that he had grown disillusioned with transfer business.
Van Bronckhorst, afforded immediate love-bombing as a former Rangers player, was widely portrayed as the right man at the right time. That he was freely available and had an existing connection with Rangers’ omnipresent sporting director, Ross Wilson, helped.
Van Bronckhorst, of course, has wandered into exactly the same situation as Gerrard at least looked irritated by. Rangers’ January transfer window included the vanity loan of Aaron Ramsey and the even more bizarre capture of Amad Diallo on loan from Manchester United. “I’m absolutely delighted that we have been able to convince both Manchester United and Amad that Rangers is the perfect place for him to continue to showcase his undoubted and exciting talent,” said Wilson.
The longest Diallo has managed in a Rangers shirt is 70 minutes, in a cup tie against Annan Athletic. When Rangers needed to kick on – which also applied last summer – they added Mateusz Zukowski and James Sands, who have had minimal or zero impact. Van Bronckhorst has displayed a strange aversion to Steven Davis, who remains more than capable of influencing games in Scotland despite his veteran status.
None of this is to state categorically that Rangers are in a state of crisis. It is merely that the extent of their league lapse has been disguised by their Europa League exploits. In Leipzig, there was a diligence and shape to Rangers. At Hampden, Van Bronckhorst’s players rattled Celtic in a fashion not witnessed since the fraught early days of the Postecoglou era. Therein lies the epitome of a weird seasonal narrative.
Should Postecoglou preside over an immediate rebound from semi-final pain, he should be regarded as Scotland’s manager of the season. The League Cup, won by a piece of genius from one of the players Postecoglou coaxed from Japan, Kyogo Furuhashi, is already housed at Celtic Park.
Adding the title may draw shrugs from those who not unreasonably regard the Scottish top flight in the context of bald men and combs but the scale of rebuild required after a calamitous last campaign means Postecoglou is worthy of immense credit.
Celtic’s board believe in their manager to the point where he will inevitably be backed heavily in the summer. Unknowns surrounding what Rangers can or will do in the same window demonstrate sharply shifting sands.