Momentum is a well-coined term in football but in practice it doesn’t really mean anything. Certain teams can have the best intentions and the most feverish feel-good vibe around them but one defeat throws all of that out the window. Just 90 minutes can turn a season, a reputation or even an entire career around. And that’s why we love this game so much.
On Sunday we have the Old Firm derby. Graeme Murty’s bruised and battered side will arrive at Hampden and enter a football cauldron bouncing and positively vibrating with cheers and songs celebrating a Scottish Premiership campaign they just about wrapped up and the treble-winning season they’ll almost certainly conclude.
And why shouldn’t they? Despite Celtic’s form taking a slight dip compared to their unbeaten run last season, this campaign has largely been one without a single competitor of note. The Scottish champions may march on to another treble but they’ve done so without really breaking sweat. Which is why Sunday’s match is such a perfect opportunity for Murty and his squad to bring it all to an abrupt halt.
Like any derby, Rangers will need little reason or incentive to get themselves up for the match, but unlike the league matches that have played out over the course of the league campaign this will be a one-off chance to knock Celtic off their perch. One lucky goal would be enough to put a dent in the cross-city celebrations in May.
Such sentiment has only gathered weight over the past week, after the SPFL decided to move the coming Old Firm derby from next Saturday to the following matchday to ensure there was no possibility of Celtic winning the title in front of their rivals. Or, just as troublesome, Rangers thwarting Brendan Rodgers and his side and delaying their celebrations for another week.
Now, Celtic will most likely win the league title at Easter Road next Saturday when they face Hibs. Robbing the following match against Rangers of little meaning or consequence. And as such making Sunday’s clash the last opportunity Murty’s side will have of derailing Celtic’s season before it’s over.
Of course, there are issues which Rangers will also have to face ahead of such a match, and depending on the result the consequences will either be severe or prove to be far less troublesome than perhaps initially feared.
For a start, there’s the very real threat of Murty losing his job this summer when the Rangers board make up their mind on the long-term future of the club. Many suspect that a new coach with a longer list of achievements on his CV will be sought out but if the former interim coach could rob Celtic of a Scottish Cup trophy and indeed claim it as his own then the glory would go a long way to quelling the notable concerns surrounding the 43-year old. That’s not to say a cup would keep Murty at Rangers, but if things still hang in the balance then it would certainly strengthen his case.
On a broader scale we also have Rangers’ unanswered queries as to where they currently stand in the hierarchy of Scottish football. Most fans of the club are perfectly aware of the unrealistic nature of demanding the Ibrox side match Celtic pound-for-pound in the transfer market, but if Premiership titles can’t be won or even contested then the appetite for success will have to be quenched elsewhere. And a Scottish Cup semi final is the perfect opportunity to do exactly that.
After another tumultuous season on and off the park, a cup win could be the deciding factor that sways popular opinion at Ibrox away from vocal complaints about what’s happening at the boardroom level in June and towards a more positive, optimistic look at what could be built off the back of such silverware in the following campaign.
This is undoubtedly underlined by the team’s continued inability to lock down second place in the league. Despite beating Aberdeen no less than three times and spending a fortune in the transfer market compared to Neil Lennon’s Hibs, Rangers find themselves level on points with the former and just three above the latter. And thanks to the nature of the Premiership split Murty’s side will have to travel to Pittodrie and Easter Road in their quest to ensure they finish as the very best of the rest.
Such a struggle is undoubtedly a testament to the improved quality of opposition in the league this season but has also proved just as useful as the cornerstone to criticism aimed at Murty and the club. How can Rangers try and catch Celtic if they can’t even beat Aberdeen or Hibs to second place?
We’ll probably not know the answer to that question for another month or so but in the meantime Murty and his squad can fight off such criticism and potential unemployment whilst derail Celtic’s season in one, swift move. It all rests on Sunday’s game. Where momentum will either continue building or come to a complete and unexpected halt.