Sunday’s Old Firm derby promises to showcase two teams with a huge array of talent, yet the result will come down to how Graeme Murty and Brendan Rodgers pick their starting teams and which of their selected players proves pivotal to winning the game.
Rangers currently sit just six points behind Celtic in the Scottish Premiership and with a win could narrow the gap to just three points, Meanwhile, Sunday’s visitors from Parkhead could kill off any suggestion of a title race by broadening the gap to nine points whilst also holding a game in hand.
So how can either team win this pivotal match?
Perhaps the most useful weapon in Rangers’ arsenal is their ability to simply score a bucket-load of goals. Murty’s side may have a defensive record that’s only one better than Aberdeen’s, but they have an offensive record that currently bests last season’s champions by three goals.
A large chunk of that potency in front of goal comes from young Colombian striker Alfredo Morelos. Despite being just 21 and in his first season in Scotland, Morelos has already bagged 17 goals and six assists in 34 games. The Rangers striker hasn’t yet managed to put a goal past Celtic’s defence, but he’ll be intent on rectifying that on Sunday.
Alongside Morelos is Josh Windass. Although the English forward blew hot and cold last season, a recent shift to the No.10 position by his new interim boss has allowed the 24-year-old to thrive and find up some consistency. And that’s reflected in his goal-scoring form this season.
From Rangers’ left wing this term, Windass was picking up 0.38 goals per game and had just one assist to his name in 16 matches. Yet when deployed as a No.10 or a second striker the forward’s goals-per-game ratio shoots up to 0.6. He’s also supplied five assists in just ten appearances. If Rangers are to get the better of Celtic it’ll be through these two goal scorers.
Where trouble may arise for Rangers is in the process of of providing the ammunition for the duo. If Windass and Morelos are the goal scorers of Murty’s side, then Daniel Candeias and James Tavernier are the playmakers, with 11 and nine assists respectively.
Indeed, the manner in which the right-wing duo have linked up this season has put many deep-lying defences to the sword in the Scottish Premiership. Yet on Sunday they face an altogether tougher test in the form of Scott Sinclair and Kieran Tierney.
Sinclair’s most underrated value as a left winger is his ability and willingness to track back when necessary. But Murty and Rangers will be far more concerned with what he can do going forward.
The former Chelsea prospect is not in the same scintillating form of last season. But he has still managed to pick up 17 goals and 15 assists in all competitions. And he will almost certainly be expected to add to that against a gung-ho Tavernier.
Tierney’s capabilities in defence scarcely need accentuating. Yet it is worth noting that the Celtic left-back is undoubtedly one of Rodgers’ most useful attacking players. The 20-year-old’s ability to skip past even the quickest defender still hasn’t met its match. That’s clear from the four goals and five assists he’s already got to his name this season.
If Rangers were hoping to rely upon their usual attack-minded right wing on Sunday they may first have to figure out how they plan on keeping Tierney and Sinclair quiet and out of their half.
Yet perhaps the most important player on the pitch in the Old Firm derby will be the man who often seems to keep his cool in this famous rivalry: Scott Brown. Both teams may have their goal scorers and playmakers, yet there’s no midfield general in Rangers’ ranks who can match Celtic’s captain.
Although Murty and the 50,000 home fans cheering on their side come Sunday will argue Sean Goss has excelled since joining on loan in January, he’ll have his work cut out to get the better of Brown.
The Celtic captain hasn’t lost an Old Firm derby in the league since March 2012. There have been 11 meetings since and the Bhoys are yet to taste defeat in that period.
It many ways the central midfielder encapsulates Celtic’s dominance over Scottish football and their closest rivals. Come Sunday it will take something special for him to concede the middle of the park to Rangers and allow them the space and time to try and win the game.