It remains to be seen whether Michael Beal will become a champion manager, but there is no doubt that the Rangers boss is a champion chatterbox. Eloquent and interesting. But even Bila has probably had enough of talking. Yawning time is over. He will know that if his team lose to Celtic on Monday, the league will also be over.
Most of the heat is on the Rangers – and Beale knows it. Perhaps that’s why he spent an inordinate amount of time in his press conference on Friday heaping love on Celtic’s form under Ange Postecoglou. Discuss the opponent, make yourself an outsider. It’s not exactly new age mind games, but he has to try something.
Trailing by nine points and a colossal goal difference that effectively amounts to a 10-point gap, there is no insurance for Beal’s team. Lose and they’re done. Draw and, well, they’re probably still ready. Being nine points behind is a chasm when you’re in doubt about where your own team is, like Beal’s, and when the team you’re trying to chase has won 18 of their 19 league games.
To put that into context, Brendan Rodgers’ 2016-17 side won 18 of their opening 19 league games. Martin O’Neill’s side did the same 13 years ago. No other Celtic manager has gone as far in a league season with the same record as these three, including Jock Stein and his band of immortals who won every trophy they played for in 1966-67. These were Bhoys with the Midas touch. Bertie Auld would have ridden the Derby winner that year if he had put his mind to it.
During his time at Celtic, Postecoglou went from 1-0 to almost 9-0 in the league, with 8-0 being the only one missing in the series. Don’t do anything
But those aren’t the routes that have broken the Rangers’ heads this season. These are the others, the ones where Celtic looked like they were going to drop points and give hope to their chasers across town, the ones where they labored only to strike late on and claim another win.
Two goals in the last six minutes to beat Ross County 3-1; 90th minute winner against St Johnstone; two goals in stoppage time to beat Dundee United 4-2; Aberdeen overcame the winner in the 87th minute.
The bad news for Rangers men is that they have been heavily outclassed in the league since Filipe Helander’s goal won the first leg against Postecoglou’s Celtic. Livingston have a better record against Postecoglou’s side than Rangers while the Australian has been in town (they have each taken four points from Celtic in five games, but Leavi’s -5 goal difference is better than Rangers’ -7).
Dundee scored more goals in three games against Celtic last season than Rangers did in five. Laurence Shankland scored a 20th-minute hat-trick against Celtic in October to equal Rangers’ most goals against the champions in the last seven-and-a-half hours of a Premier League game.
The Rangers have been hampered by too many injuries this season. This is undeniable. Helander was the first international center half, but he did not kick the ball in the league. Just over a year ago, as a Hearts player, John Suttar played and scored in the World Cup win over Denmark, but Suttar made just one appearance for his new club. Janis Hagi is a decent player, but injury took him away as well. Kemar Roofe scored 10 league goals last season and 14 the season before, but he has only appeared twice. Tom Lawrence, who looked good in his early games, only played five times in the league.
The Rangers need some or all of these guys back, but they also need new blood, a Postecoglou-esque upgrade. This is the problem. They don’t have the money for it and don’t have enough assets to sell to self-finance it. Meanwhile, Celtic have found a manager who is smart about opportunities in new markets. Postecoglou’s recruitment was stunning, but the most important thing at the club was the deal that brought him to Scotland.
This Rangers team, especially in a pedestrian central midfield, needs more creativity, presence and pace to make much progress. Remember how at the beginning of the season the pace of “Celtic” was too difficult for them. Six of the Rangers team that beat Motherwell last week were aged 28 and over. Four of them were over 30 years old. At the end of January, Allan McGregor will be 41 years old.
Man for man, you’d pick Celtic all day on Monday, but Rangers must have the feeling that there’s no tomorrow in the league if they lose. This desperation can give a side an edge, a lust for victory that is difficult to deal with.
Home advantage is another factor, of course. The games at Ibrox were intense. All the strikes came at Celtic Park, 3-0 and 4-0, which saw Postecoglou’s men at their best. If they match that type of energy, drive and class, then they will win. They are simply the better side. However, it would be unwise to ignore the Ibrox factor. It’s also the aggression that the Rangers will undoubtedly have now that they are firmly against the wall.
The aggregate league record between Postecoglou’s Celtic and Rangers is 10-3. Celtic scored nine goals in the first half, three in the first eight minutes. Beale’s players have been warned. They know what will happen. However, realizing it and stopping it are two different things. Whatever the weather, there will be thunder at Ibrox. This is the only absolute certainty.