NEIL LENNON says today’s massive game won’t define the season.
I’m sorry to disagree with my old team-mate but it definitely could. If Rangers lose it, they won’t recover. Psychologically, it would be a huge blow for Steven Gerrard’s team. The buildup to this game has put a fresh dynamic into the fixture.
I t seeme d barely a day went past at one stage over the past fortnight when Celtic were not having a player ruled out of the game with the Covid-19 pandemic being the principal culprit.
Celtic are not going to be anywhere near full-strength.
They have lost Ryan Christie, Nir Bitton and Hatem Abd Elhamed thanks to the virus.
And even if Odsonne Edouard makes the squad today he’s not going to be himself after a long spell of self-isolation.
James Forrest is already ruled out with an ankle fracture while Albian Ajeti won’t be fully fit either having been out with a hamstring issue.
Rangers have gone from fancying their chances to being tagged as the favourites to win due to these circumstances.
Let’s be honest, there was already a feeling Gerrard’s team were in a better place with the rhythm of their play before the international break.
Even though Celtic have dropped fewer points, their play has been bitty. It hasn’t been fluent. Chuck the absentees into the mix and Rangers will never have a better chance of winning the first Old Firm game of the season for the first time in a long time.
However, there’s a flip side. With odds stacking up in their favour, so does the expectation.
If they lose in Glasgow’s east end, it’ll be a brutal setback, whereas Celtic proved after the last derby game that losing it doesn’t knock them too much.
As I said a couple of weeks ago, if I was in the Celtic dressing room right now, I’d be looking at the situation since the start of the season and feeling as though things had turned out alright.
We haven’t got started yet, we are only at 50 per cent of form and, if we win our game in hand, we’d be two points clear at the top of the table.
That’s what I’d be thinking. Especially given all of the plaudits which have been dished out to Rangers.
If Celtic go out and win this game, that would theoretically put them five points clear when they haven’t really even got out of second gear and their rivals have been nearly at their best.
It would be a sickener for the Rangers players and inflict the type of blow they’d find it tough to recover from.
Team selection and tactics are going to be critical. Given the situation Celtic have been faced with in an attacking sense, I’d hand Patryk Klimala the job of leading the line.
The Polish striker is raw and not the finished article but you have to admire his hunger, his attitude a nd he would not give the Rangers backl ine a minute’s peace.
I just don’t feel you can go into this game half-baked. It doesn’t matter if Edouard or Ajeti are 80 per cent fit, I don’t think 80 per cent is enough.
Leigh Griffiths scored in the last game but he was blowing afterwards and was only on the pitch for 15 minutes. He doesn’t look ready to start and Mohamed
Elyounoussi could even get the nod alongside the Pole.
Klimala would run the Rangers defenders and move them around. And he can finish.
Defensively, Celtic are likely to go with Shane Duffy, Christopher Jullien and Kristoffer Ajer. Lennon could go to four at the back with the Norwegian going to right-back but I can’t see it.
Duffy is going to relish a battle against Alfredo Morelos. This type of physical contest is right up his street and it’s going to be a great duel to watch.
The Irishman will tinker with the Colombian’s temper and it will be fascinating.
Ryan Kent is the real Rangers weapon and has the ability to take advantage of any spaces which Celtic leave in behind.
That’s where I feel Celtic have to be cute. Normally, they are on the front foot at home. In any domestic game they are expected to flood forward and push into attack.
However, I believe that would just suit Rangers. Gerrard’s team are good on the counter and have most of their problems facing sides who are narrow and keep it tight and compact.
There are not 50,000-odd home fans roaring Celtic forward and they might just sit in a little more than usual. Why would you open yourself up and leave yourself wide open to Rangers’ biggest strengths?
That does not make a lot of sense, especially when you consider everything that has happened in the build-up to the game. Lennon and his team want to win but a point would not be a disaster for the home team.
What am I expecting to happen? Putting all ingredients into the mix, I’m going to sit on the fence. It will be a 1-1 draw and that’s a result both teams would settle for if you asked them quietly this morning.
Celts have to be cute. They might just sit in a little more than usual
POLE POSITION Klimala, right, should get the nod up front with Ajeti, left, and Griffiths, below right, not 100 per cent fit for derby after all three trained yesterday