New re­al­i­ties for Rangers in Old Firm

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Michael Walker:

Rangers v Celtic Ibrox, 12 noon Live on TV: Sky Sports Main Event

As ex­pected, Partick This­tle fans went through the singing of: “You’re not Rangers any more” to the 4,000 or so op­po­si­tion fans at Firhill on Tues­day night.

While this is now a rit­ual, rather un­der­mined by the fact it is di­rected at un­changed sup­port­ers from Ibrox, there is a deeper truth to the taunt. Even those in blue cheer­ing on their club know Rangers are not quite Rangers any more.

A fan­base abused by var­i­ous board­room regimes and in­di­vid­u­als clings to the hope that if it walks like Rangers and talks like Rangers, then it will be Rangers once again, but this is Rangers with holes in its shoes.

It is per­son­i­fied by a man­ager, Pe­dro Caix­inha, who may dress like Wal­ter Smith and say “we are the peo­ple”, but who re­mains a cu­ri­ous choice to be in charge of such a vast in­sti­tu­tion.

While, su­per­fi­cially, Rangers ap­pear set­tled, there are se­ri­ous ques­tions hov­er­ing over the club and those will land with force should Ibrox wit­ness a Celtic vic­tory in the first Old Firm game of the sea­son to­day.

All present will know the de­tails of the last in­stal­ment of this fix­ture, at the end of April, when Celtic were 4-0 up just past the hour and won 5-1, their big­gest vic­tory on Rangers’ turf since 1897.

Caix­inha was in the jobo eight weeks then and be­fore­hand ac­knowl­edged the “gulf” be­tween the two Glas­gow ri­vals, though he was “con­fi­dent” it could be bridged. Af­ter the match, he said: “I am to blame.”

Un­for­tu­nately for Caix­inha, a 46-year-old for­mer as­sis­tant at Sport­ing Lis­bon and Panathi­naikos who had been work­ing in Qatar when Ibrox called, it was not the last time he would have to make this state­ment.

About a fort­night later Rangers lost at home to Aberdeen for the first time since 1991 and then, seven weeks af­ter that, Rangers trav­elled to Lux­em­bourg for the sec­ond leg of a Europa League qual­i­fier against Pro­grès Niederkorn, a club few at Ibrox had even heard of.

Rangers lost 2-0, the worst re­sult in their his­tory. Sup­port­ers’ hu­mil­i­a­tion was every bit as painful as Euro­pean elim­i­na­tion. “I as­sume all the re­spon­si­bil­ity,” Caix­inha said.

Hat-trick of em­bar­rass­ments

In one re­spect, he has faced up to this hat-trick of em­bar­rass­ments, the causes of which pre­date him; but then Caix­inha has also pre­pared and picked the team on these oc­ca­sions.

Tac­ti­cally, more was an­tic­i­pated from him. Caix­inha has surfed the Por­tuguese wave cre­ated by the big splash José Mour­inho made more than a decade ago and with every pass­ing de­feat, the op­por­tu­nity to man­age a club of the scale of Rangers does not ap­pear to be based on Caix­inha’s CV.

When, last month, Rangers met Neil Len­non’s just-pro­moted Hiber­nian at home and lost 3-2, there was an­other re­sult to slide across the Ibrox board­room ta­ble to ask about.

This game was af­fected by the un­just dis­missal of Rangers’ Ryan Jack, and the loss was sub­merged in the squall sur­round­ing Len­non’s cel­e­bra­tions, but for Caix­inha the prob­lem was that it came af­ter Pro­grès Niederkorn and af­ter a sum­mer of per­son­nel flux over­seen by him.

No fewer than 11 of the 18-man squad who en­dured that home de­feat by Celtic in April have left the club, quite a vote of no-con­fi­dence in the past.

But de­con­struc­tion is sim­ple, con­struc­tion is dif­fi­cult, and it is the squad Caix­inha has as­sem­bled since that is of con­cern.

In Scot­tish terms, Rangers spent heav­ily this sum­mer on trans­fer fees and wages as Caix­inha’s ap­point­ment was backed by cash.

There have been eight per­ma­nent sign­ings and one of them, 21-year-old Colom­bian Al­fredo More­los, has scored eight goals in 10 games.

More­los was signed from Fin­nish foot­ball for an es­ti­mated £1 mil­lion and is the sort of player who could be sold on to Eng­land’s sec­ond or third tier for three times that fairly soon, some­thing of a Celtic way of op­er­at­ing.

There is an un­der­stand­able de­sire for des­per­ate fans to seek ex­cite­ment in a new player, and More­los is the fo­cus of some of this. But re­al­ism must in­trude: More­los played a part in both legs against Pro­grès Niederkorn and, although lively and dan­ger­ous against Partick This­tle, it was against Partick This­tle.

Rangers have played their other Glas­gow ri­vals twice in the past nine days and not beaten them over 90 min­utes – the League Cup win on Tues­day came in ex­tra-time. It is as­sess­ing this form which makes Gers ner­vous about Celtic.

Wed­nes­day’s win at Dundee took Celtic’s un­beaten do­mes­tic run to 56 matches and if Bren­dan Rodgers’s team is vic­to­ri­ous again at Ibrox, it will leave Rangers eight points be­hind Celtic af­ter seven games.

Con­sid­er­ing that over last sea­son’s 38 games, Rangers fin­ished 39 points be­hind Celtic, that would sug­gest there has been lit­tle up­lift since Caix­inha’s ar­rival.

Erode his cred­i­bil­ity

So there is the prospect a bad home de­feat will erode his cred­i­bil­ity to the stage where the three-year con­tract signed in March will not bring pro­tec­tion.

That might seem harsh given Rangers’ vul­ner­a­bil­ity as a club is hardly Caix­inha’s do­ing, but the board will de­fend it­self.

There will al­ways be fin­gers crossed when the flags and angst of an Old Firm derby ap­proaches, but the un­cer­tainty Rangers feel is not just in con­trast to the cer­tain­ties of old, it also jars with the aware­ness of the or­gan­ised vi­brancy Celtic will bring to Ibrox.

Rodgers has pro­duced a style and dis­ci­pline well beyond the vague idea put out by his pre­de­ces­sor Ronny Deila. That de­vel­op­ment also con­trasts with what Caix­inha has achieved post-Mark War­bur­ton.

Celtic will be ea­ger to re­mind Rangers of the un­bridged gulf be­tween them, and af­ter­wards that they have a big­ger game next Wed­nes­day in Brus­sels.

Celtic travel to face An­der­lecht in what – re­al­is­ti­cally – could be de­scribed as the first leg of a play­off to see who comes third in the Cham­pi­ons League group con­tain­ing Paris Saint-Ger­main and Bay­ern Mu­nich.

While Celtic are think­ing about play­ing Euro­pean foot­ball af­ter Christ­mas, Rangers are wor­ry­ing about get­ting through to­day un­scathed.

Caix­inha has surfed the Por­tuguese wave cre­ated by the big splash Jose Mour­inho made more than a decade ago and with every pass­ing de­feat, the op­por­tu­nity to man­age a club of the scale of Rangers does not ap­pear to be based on Caix­inha’s CV

PHOTOGRAPHS: JEFF HOLMES & RICHARD SELL­ERS’/PA WIRE

Rangers’s Colom­bian striker Al­fredo More­los (right) is stopped by Partick This­tle’s Daniel Devine dur­ing the Scot­tish Pre­mier­ship match at Firhill last week. In­set: Rangers man­ager Pe­dro Caix­inha: a cu­ri­ous choice to be in charge of such a vast in­sti­tu­tion.

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