Celtic v Rangers: What are the key Old Firm questions as derby looms?
|Venue: Celtic Park, Glasgow Date: Sat, 17 Oct Kick-off: 12:30 BST|
|Coverage: Listen live on Radio Scotland & online; text commentary on BBC Sport website & app; watch highlights on Sportscene|
More than 10 months have passed since Celtic and Rangers last met. Ten months in which plenty has happened both on and off the pitch.
But as the sides finally prepare to recommence their rivalry, what are the key questions around the first Old Firm game of a season in which Neil Lennon’s side are attempting to win a historic 10 in a row and Steven Gerrard’s men are determined to stop them?
How do Celtic cope with Covid chaos?
Celtic went sauntering into the international break in fine fettle with eight straight wins. They’ve come staggering out the other end in a parlous state, with Covid-19 having ripped through the squad.
Defender Hatem Elhamed, midfielder Nir Bitton and playmaker Ryan Christie are all coronavirus-related absentees, with Odsonne Edouard’s availability still in doubt. So manager Neil Lennon, already without injured winger James Forrest, is facing a major reshuffle.
His most pressing problem is up front. Edouard is reportedly not due back from France until Friday and, having been stuck in self-isolation, a place on the bench seems the best the 22-year-old can hope for.
One of the striker slots in Celtic’s 3-5-2 system looks set to be filled by Albian Ajeti, who is expected to return after missing the win at St Johnstone three weeks ago. But who partners him?
Patryk Klimala wasn’t given a start in the Champions League qualifying loss to Ferencvaros, when Lennon shoehorned Christie into a striker’s role, so can he be trusted to lead the line in Old Firm battle?
Leigh Griffiths made a dramatic impact off the bench to rescue Celtic at St Johnstone with a last-minute opener, but those 14 minutes are the 30-year-old’s only game time this season.
Lennon could instead utilise attacking midfielder Mohamed Elyounoussi in the front two, a role the Norwegian has filled before. That would leave scope just behind for David Turnbull to make just a second start since his £3m move from Motherwell.
Further back, Christopher Jullien should be back from a month-long lay-off to plug a gap in defence. However Lennon fits the pieces together, it is a headache he could have done without.
Does form matter?
Just a point separates the pair at the top of the Scottish Premiership – with Celtic retaining a game in hand – but Rangers have been the more impressive team this season.
With two draws the only blemishes in their opening 10 games, the Ibrox men are a point better off than the same stage last term, and seven superior to the previous campaign, Gerrard’s first in charge.
Perhaps most impressive has been their defensive solidity, setting a record by going seven games without conceding at the start of the league. In forward areas, Ryan Kent has been a stand-out, helping to compensate for the Alfredo Morelos slump prompted by uncertainty over his future.
And while it seems absurd to question the form of a Celtic side who’ve won 11 and lost just one of 13 games in all competitions, even the most ardent fans can’t deny they have not reached the heights they are capable of.
Whether it’s down to injury disruption in defence, lack of midfield cohesion, or Edouard being off the boil in attack, it hasn’t quite clicked for Lennon’s team.
Their problems were laid bare in the loss to Ferencavos, with defensive calamities ruthlessly exposed. Still, they have responded positively to that crushing blow, winning every game since.
So, Rangers approach this one with heightened hopes against depleted rivals. But Celtic had won 16 of 17 games leading up to the previous derby in December last year. They were promptly beaten 2-1 as Rangers secured a first league success at Celtic Park in nine years.
How does the absence of fans affect things?
This will be a unique, stripped back Old Firm showdown. The noise, colour and passion of the supporters – such a key part of this world-renowned fixture – are all conspicuous by their absence.
Premiership games continue to be staged behind closed doors, and the sharp rise in Covid-19 cases has scuppered Celtic’s hopes of having even a few hundred home fans in attendance.
Played in an empty stadium hasn’t hampered them so far at home, winning all four games while scoring at least three times in each. But the visit of Rangers is a different proposition entirely.
There will be no frenzied and hostile atmosphere awaiting Gerrard’s men. No deafening roars from a 60,000 support willing Celtic forward, no barracking of opposition players whenever they touch the ball or venture to the sidelines to take a throw-in.
That all seems to stack up in Rangers’ favour, but nothing is set in stone in these uncertain times. Well, other than the fact the thudding challenges will come thick and fast. Some things never change.
Where will this game be won and lost?
Since beginning his second stint as Celtic manager in February 2019, Lennon has won three of five derbies, with Rangers taking the other two.
It could be argued, though, that Gerrard has had the upper hand tactically. Even in losing last season’s League Cup final, Rangers were utterly dominant, missing a penalty and a handful of chances. And in their last encounter, the Ibrox side controlled proceedings to silence a packed Celtic Park.
The key battleground each time was midfield, where Gerrard’s 4-2-3-1 formation gives Rangers the platform to assert control. Similarly, when Celtic won 2-0 at Ibrox in the opening derby of last season, it was by dominating the middle of the pitch that they were able to take command.
Having worked in tandem for Scotland over the past week, Ryan Jack and Callum McGregor will now be on opposing sides vying for superiority. Can McGregor and 35-year-old Celtic captain Scott Brown dominate, or will Jack hold sway along with Steven Davis and Glen Kamara?
As Rangers seek their first back-to-back Old Firm wins since 2009, and Celtic bid make a statement of intent in their quest for an unprecedented 10th straight title, there’s no cutting out the middle men.