Graham Ruthven: Old Firm facing pivotal night in their European journeys

Rangers and Celtic will know a lot about their respective futures in European competition after Thursday night’s ties in the Europa League…

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When one’s up, the other’s down. Celtic and Rangers are seemingly on either end of a wildly swinging pendulum.

It’s been this way for generations, such is the nature of the rivalry and the tribalism that afflicts both sets of fans, but the first few months of the season has illustrated this dynamic better than ever before.

When Rangers were making progress under new manager Steven Gerrard, signing well and qualifying for the Europa League, Celtic were suffering something of a crisis, struggling in the transfer market and crashing out of Champions League qualification.

More recently, when Celtic have hit their groove again, making the League Cup final and scoring 13 times in their last five domestic games, Rangers have suffered League Cup semi-final heartbreak, struggling for attacking firepower.

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Unusually, however, the pendulum is set pretty level for both teams this week. The Europa League campaign of both Celtic and Rangers will pivot on what happens on Thursday night with the two rivals in need of a positive result.

The pendulum could swing for or against them both, or in a familiar manner, it could see them end up on different ends of the fluctuation.

Rangers have fared rather better so far, with Gerrard’s men yet to suffer defeat in Group G, but weariness has crept into their game in recent weeks, and with tough away trips to Spartak Moscow and Rapid Vienna, as well as a clash with Villarreal, still to come there is a sense that the Ibrox side are losing momentum.

Somehow, Gerrard must find a way to rid his side of the hesitancy and incoherence that has weighed down their recent performances.

All season long, Rangers have kept their best games for Europe and against Spartak Moscow on Thursday they must continue that trend. But, they must do that by lighting the blue touch paper in a way they have failed to do in recent domestic outings.

This was an issue Celtic similarly faced not so long ago, but they have since rediscovered their best attacking form.

Odsonne Edouard, Tom Rogic, James Forrest and even Ryan Christie, a peripheral figure until just a few weeks ago, have been the starkest manifestation of this rejuvenation, with Celtic smashing through St Johnstone, Hearts (twice), Hibernian and Dundee. And yet the one blip in the Hoops’ recent run of good form was in the Europa League.

Celtic were limp away to RB Leipzig two weeks ago, almost settling for a 2-0 defeat.

Injuries depleted Brendan Rodgers’ side, with the Northern Irishman resting some key figures ahead of the League Cup semi against Hearts just days later, but even still, the performance was lifeless, lacklustre, lethargic… everything their recent domestic performances haven’t been.

So, while Celtic must look to continue on Thursday night what they have been doing domestically these past few weeks, Rangers should seek to forget their domestic performances of late.

They need something different, something that evokes the spirit of their win over Rapid Vienna or draw away to Villarreal, not that of their somewhat subpar performance against Spartak Moscow two weeks ago.

Both rivals are targeting a place in continental competition after Christmas. For Celtic, that has always been an objective, especially after their failure to qualify for the Champions League group stages.

Rangers’ aim was merely to qualify for the Europa League, to make it through four rounds of qualification, but that has since changed on the back of their first three group results.

Celtic and Rangers’ respective participation in the same European competition has added an extra layer to their rivalry this season, but while the Europa League has brought something close to the best out of the latter, the same can’t be said of the former.

They must solve their contrasting issues this week, but different problems will require different solutions.

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