Talking stops now – Old Firm final bragging rights on line

The last meeting of the sides finished in an Ibrox stalemate, the only match Rangers boss Michael Beale has not won since taking charge in November
Venue: Hampden Park, Glasgow Date: Sunday, 26 February Time: 15:00 GMT
Coverage: Listen live on BBC Radio Scotland and follow live text commentary on the BBC Sport Scotland website and app

For the longest time, Celtic have heard bombast from across the city, loud boasts from Rangers about how they are the best team in Scotland despite a body of evidence to the contrary, a file so thick it could choke an elephant.

In declaring his improving team the finest in the country despite trailing their rivals by nine points in the league, Fashion Sakala was the latest in a long line of Ibrox folk to stumble into this area. Big talk has a habit of boomeranging back and hitting you right between the eyes in the Old Firm derby.

If Sakala wasn’t aware of the power of his words and how they would be plastered across the back pages, he knows it now. Coming out with this stuff a few days before a League Cup final is not exactly sensible.

It’s hard to know where to start cataloguing Sakala’s predecessors in this regard, but let’s begin with Kyle Lafferty who declared Rangers the best side in Scotland in March 2012 just as Celtic were about to win the league and only a month after Rangers had entered into administration. That was a puzzler.

Next, we could go to Pedro Caixinha, who in March 2017 said the club he was about to manage was “the best squad in Scotland”. Celtic were 33 points ahead of Rangers at the time, then beat them 2-0 and 5-1 in the two remaining Old Firm matches of the season. Pedro talked a good game.

Enter, Sheyi Ojo in the summer of 2019. “I think Rangers are the best team in the league,” said the midfielder, who flitted briefly across the Ibrox landscape. Celtic finished nine points ahead of Rangers the previous season and were 13 points in front of them when that season Ojo was involved in was called. Rangers had a game in hand, but still…

This is not an exhaustive list. We could throw in Joey Barton and others, but there’s no need. The question is why does history keep repeating itself? Sakala is a young player, but declaring Rangers as the supreme team in the land rarely ends well when, in reality rather than in fantasy, Celtic have been the dominant force in 10 of the previous 11 seasons, a run that might well become 11 in 12. They are certainly favourites to win another treble.

Beale getting more but no dent in Celtic lead

Michael Beale might have cringed at Sakala’s words because the Rangers manager has managed to walk that fine line between confidence in his own team and respect for Celtic. Offering a red rag to Celtic’s bulls is only going to make a difficult job even tougher.

Ange Postecoglou’s side are unbeaten in 23 domestic games. Beale has done a terrific job since he arrived at Ibrox, winning 13 and drawing one – against Celtic – but the consistency of what they’ve done hasn’t put even slightest dent in Postecoglou’s lead at the top.

The only difference between them on Beale’s watch is goal difference. Across his 14 games, Rangers have scored 33 and have conceded 12. Celtic have scored 44 and have conceded six. In that run, they’ve scored four goals in a single game on five occasions and scored five in two others (while trailing for a total of 35 minutes, at Ibrox, in all of those matches).

Rangers have managed three on multiple occasions – they’ve won four matches 3-2 – but have never really opened up in the same way that Celtic have. Right now, Celtic have more gears.

Postecoglou’s team is a settled unit, of course. Beale’s is still a work-in-progress. The Rangers manager has to be delighted with where his team is at right now, even if he’s still carrying a hefty and damning injury toll. He’s made an ageing team younger with the introduction of Nicolas Raskin and Todd Cantwell, two players who have an “energy and innocence towards the pressure and expectation”.

He’s getting more out of Ryan Kent and Alfredo Morelos than Giovanni van Bronckhorst did, but needs even more. He’s made strides on the team’s defensive flakiness and he offers hope to Rangers fans that next season’s Premiership, with more summer additions and injured players restored, might be more of a battle than this one.

Rangers can cause problems

That’s the future, though. The present is all that matters now. We can make the point that even although Postecoglou has been dominant in this fixture, he has won only one of four against Rangers away from Celtic Park and that the last time his side faced Rangers at Hampden, they lost.

They conceded two goals in 90 minutes at Ibrox, which is the same total they’ve conceded in 810 minutes since then. Rangers have the firepower to get at Celtic. They have the players that can, on their best day, take advantage of Postecoglou’s ultra attacking philosophy. The question is will they be able to survive the onslaught on their own goal?

The 2-2 draw at Ibrox in January was instructive in that Rangers had home advantage, had almost double the attempts on goal and almost three times the number of shots on target, but still couldn’t win. The equaliser came on the back of Celtic’s huge belief that they’re never done until they’re done. Kyogo Furuhashi banged in the equaliser despite having done precious little in the game. On 22 goals for the season, he’s a deadly force.

It’s been said forever that a first experience of an Old Firm match can fry the brain of some players. There are a thousand stories to point to the truth of that. There’s also recent examples of Celtic’s newcomers taking to it like it was just another game.

Reo Hatate made his Old Firm debut in February last year and scored two and assisted on another before the half-time break. Cameron Carter-Vickers, Matt O’Riley, Jota, and Daizen Maeda also faced Rangers for the first time that night. The 3-0 win didn’t suggest that they struggled to handle the expectation. Aaron Mooy made his Old Firm debut off the bench in Celtic’s 4-0 win earlier in the season. Mooy didn’t exactly faint from the pressure.

This is what you keep going back to with Celtic. For all the undoubted improvement Rangers have made under Beale, there are more match-winners in the Celtic ranks, more nous, more class, more goals. Beale has narrowed the gap probably quicker than most expected he would, but they’re the underdogs at Hampden, even if Sakala believes otherwise.

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