Half of Glasgow was jubilant on Tuesday evening after Rangers made the risky trip north to Perth and came away with a 4-1 win over St. Johnstone. Although the result itself was never in too much doubt it did mean that Graeme Murty’s side moved to within six points of Celtic.
Indeed, while the green and white half of Scotland’s biggest city may be rolling their eyes at the very suggestion of it, Rangers fans have wasted little time enjoying the fact that their interim manager has pulled them within touching distance of the club that finished 39 points above them last season. Even if Celtic do have a game in hand.
Additional fuel to this blaze of supposed title challenging is the fact that, following some poor weather and suspended fixtures, the Scottish champions’ next league game is at Ibrox, where Brendan Rodgers’ side will face Rangers. So, are Murty’s team contenders for the throne, or simple pretenders getting a little ahead of themselves?
Perhaps the most encouraging stat for hopeful Rangers fans is the simple fact that their stop-gap manager has not only matched expectations since taking over from Pedro Caixinha but surely surpassed any hopes from the Ibrox board and the 50,000 fans that attend each and every home game.
Murty’s points-per-game ratio in the Premiership this season currently stands at 2.11. A figure that comfortably surpasses Caixinha’s 1.8 points per game, but also comes dangerously close to Rodgers’ current tally of 2.29. If the Celtic manager is the gold standard in Scottish football then his counterpart at Rangers isn’t too far behind.
Such a record has undoubtedly been built off the impressive recruitment drive that Rangers kicked in to action in January. Russell Martin has shored up what was once a very shaky defence; Sean Goss already looks like a star in the making alongside recently-acquired playmaker Greg Docherty; while Jamie Murphy and Jason Cummings already have five goals and seven assists between them.
Of course, Murty isn’t just picking up points against the bottom half of the league table. His unexpected success at Rangers has been built on his ability to beat Hibernian at Easter Road in December, as well as an instrumental double win over Aberdeen while the Gers’ board were trying to coax the Dons’ manager, Derek McInnes, to Ibrox.
Yet, perhaps the most valuable result to date was when Murty’s side travelled to Celtic Park on December 30 and earned a hard-fought 0-0 draw with the team many thought they had no chance against.
Indeed, somewhat ironically, Rangers’ best chances against Celtic over the past two years haven’t come from the hardened coaching of Mark Warburton or the expansive, attacking football of Caixinha, but rather the modest and careful planning of this interim manager of theirs.
If Murty has already showcased the extent of his coaching talents then they undoubtedly lie in his ability to identify key players within his team and get the very best out of them. And, as we’ve seen in his two draws with Celtic in the past 12 months, fit them in to a working system.
It is certainly no coincidence that almost each and every one of the January signings has wasted little time adapting to Scottish football, while key players that were already in the side have all improved dramatically in that period, too.
Since the turn of the year, left winger Josh Windass has picked up four goals and three assists in just seven league matches. In that same period, the right-wing duo of Daniel Candeias and James Tavernier have bagged four goals and five assists between them, and star striker Alfredo Morelos has lead the line with three goals and three assists.
Although Murty may not the blockbuster appointment that Rangers fans had grown to expect in previous eras, he is undoubtedly their most efficient, pragmatic and effective coach since they won promotion to the Premiership. And there’s every reason to believe when his side host Celtic next Sunday they’ll be planning on playing at their very best.
However, Rangers at their very best still might not be enough to better a Celtic side that have recently shaken off the shackles and physical constraints of European football, and will be looking to nip this flowering rival in the bud.
As Aberdeen were once again reminded in last Saturday’s 2-0 defeat to the defending champions, when one of Celtic’s rivals begins beating their chest and raises their head above the parapet, Rodgers and his team have a habit of shaking themselves out of any complacent form and putting them back in their place.
At Ibrox, with the league campaign approaching its final stretch, Scott Brown and co. will surely appreciate the opportunity of putting any hopes and dreams that their noisy neighbours may harbour firmly to rest. Yet, if they want to do that, they’ll almost surely have to be at their best to overcome this new and improved Rangers side.