The week of an Old Firm derby in Scotland can be just as intense as the game itself. The build-up is relentless, dominating the agenda for days prior to kick off. Every radio phone-in, every back page spread, every column is dictated by Scottish football’s biggest and most prevalent rivalry. This week will be slightly different, though.
Sunday’s Old Firm derby will be the most compelling for years, probably since Rangers were promoted to the Scottish Premiership, when Brendan Rodgers faced the Ibrox side for the first time as Celtic manager and the Hoops pulled off a 5-1 win that set the tone for the next two seasons. And yet it’s not the only thing this week that could come to define the coming campaign.
For both sides, the final few days of the transfer window could be crucial. Celtic’s defensive woes have been well-documented this summer and so there is a scramble on to get a centre-back into the club, with at least one offer made for Aberdeen’s Scott McKenna last week. Leicester City’s Filip Benkovic is another who has been mentioned.
Rangers also find themselves in a late dash to add to their squad, despite already making 12 signings this summer. Kyle Lafferty was signed last week to give the Ibrox side depth up front, but there is talk that they could still add an attacking midfielder (Ryan Gauld has been linked), a winger and a centre back.
Whether these deals for both clubs come to pass will determine a lot at the top of the Scottish game this season, as will this week’s Europa League qualifiers. For the first time since the 2010/11 season, Scotland could have two teams in the group stages of a continental competition, with both Celtic and Rangers in a good position to qualify after their first leg results last week.
For Celtic, qualifying for the Europa League would be a consolation prize having dropped out of Champions League qualification.
But for Rangers, this would be a real landmark, raising to a level that could make them more competitive at the top of the Scottish game. Champions League revenue has long given Celtic an advantage over Rangers. This week could see that advantage eliminated, the playing field levelled.
Finally, after all this, there will be the first Old Firm derby of the season at the end of the week. Nobody in Scottish football is really sure of the likelihood of a true title race in the Scottish Premiership this season, with Rangers still something of an unknown quantity under Steven Gerrard, but their credentials will become clearer after their trip to Celtic Park on Sunday.
It might be difficult fathom now, given how things panned out, but some pondered whether Mark Warburton’s Rangers could challenge Celtic following their promotion from the second tier. Their first Old Firm derby meeting with the Hoops made it clear just how far short of their rivals they were, though. This weekend could offer a similar gauge.
There is intrigue throughout the Scottish Premiership this season, with storylines to follow from top to bottom. Hearts look stronger, currently sitting atop the pile after three games, with Hibernian arguably the most exciting team in the division and Aberdeen entering a new phase under Derek McInnes. But nothing comes close to the narrative that is developing between Celtic and Rangers.
At least four Old Firm derbies will be played this season, but there is a unique sense of the unknown about this weekend’s clash. Celtic have regressed in the past few weeks, but by how much? Rangers have improved under Gerrard, but to what extent? Sunday will provide some answers, but so will the days preceding that. This Old Firm derby week will be slightly different from the norm.