At the turn of the year, the prospect of a genuine title race at the top of the Scottish Premiership featuring a sustained Rangers challenge looked all the more likely. With their first league win over Celtic for six years, Steven Gerrard’s side had pulled level with their rivals. The Hoops still held a game in-hand, but the two were neck and neck as the bells chimed at midnight on December 31.
Over the next few weeks and months, though, the gap between the best and the rest that has come to define Scottish football opened up once more. Celtic’s game in-hand advantage soon became a 13-point lead by the time Neil Lennon’s men overcame Rangers in the Old Firm derby at the end of March.
Now, the discussion has arisen again: have Rangers in any way closed the gap on Celtic at the top of the table? Of all the targets – which included finishing second and qualifying for the Europa League – set for Gerrard at the start of the season this is the one which sparks the most ambiguity.
Some believe Rangers have indeed pulled themselves closer to Celtic. The current gap between the two teams, after all, stands at nine points, while last season the difference was 12 points and the season before that a massive 39 points. But more than that, Rangers are not the soft touch they were under Pedro Caixinha and Mark Warburton.
Others, however, argue that Rangers’ incremental points gain on Celtic is only due to the troubles endured on the green and white side of Glasgow, rather than improvement on the blue side. Celtic lost their manager just three months before the end of the campaign and even before that the Hoops struggled to find their most consistent form. It took them until the second half of the season to properly establish themselves at the top of the table, with Hearts and Kilmarnock even enjoying spells at the summit.
This is why Gerrard’s side needs a victory in this weekend’s derby, the final Old Firm of the 2018/19 season. Rangers have already beaten Celtic in recent memory, but the impact of that win was lost in the Ibrox outfit’s subsequent slide. Another victory over their closest rivals would give Rangers a mental platform ahead of another big summer.
Statistically, Rangers’ improvement is clear. They cleared their points tally for last season with three games of this season to spare, and also scored more goals than they did last term. More significantly, they have tightened things up at the back, keeping 17 clean sheets from 36 games compared to just 10 clean sheets from the same sample size last season.
But few in Scottish football, where the sport’s modernisms are yet to truly permeate the wider consciousness, make judgements based on statistics, and it is true that Rangers’ supposed improvement is doubted by many. Celtic still won the title at a canter. To the majority – even Rangers’ own support – that’s all that matters. Improvement will only be noted when that changes.
Gerrard’s first season in Scotland has been a success, but only just. The former England and Liverpool captain has reached the targets that were set for him. And yet this must only be a precursor. Much more will be expected of Rangers next season. There must be no ambiguity over whether the gap at the top of the Scottish game has been closed. Gerrard must turn Rangers into challengers. Victory over Celtic on Sunday would make the argument that he is positioned to do exactly that.