It’s impossible to miss the signs of recovery. They can be found in Rangers’ start to the Scottish Premiership season, which has seen the Ibrox club win all of their opening three fixtures, and in qualifying for the Europa League group stages for the second successive season. Rangers might not yet be back, but for the first time in a long while the prospect seems tangible.
Victory in this Sunday’s Old Firm derby, the first of the new season, would accentuate this sense, not just giving Rangers an early advantage at the top of the league table, but proving their worthiness as title challengers. Gerrard’s side can prove they are ready to be champions by beating Celtic this weekend.
Both teams have secured big wins to start the season, with Celtic scoring 15 times in just three games. Rangers haven’t been quite as emphatic in their victories, but a 6-1 win over Hibernian caught the eye. The form book suggests Sunday’s derby clash could be a case of who can score more.
Celtic may boast more in the way of squad depth, but there is little to split the two starting lineups. James Forrest gives the Hoops more of an edge on the wings, but Rangers have James Tavernier as the best full back in the country after the departure of Kieran Tierney earlier this month.
If this season’s title race is to be decided in the ‘Goals For’ column, Celtic and Rangers are well-matched. Both Neil Lennon and Gerrard have two proven goalscorers to choose from, with Odsonne Edouard and Leigh Griffiths and Jermain Defoe and Alfredo Morelos arguably the four best centre forwards in the league right now.
Given all this, the title could go to the team that shows more drive and takes the initiative from the start. This is why this Sunday’s Old Firm derby could prove to be so significant. There will be three more Scottish Premiership meetings between these two sides this season, but this one will establish the dynamic of the contest. It will set the tone.
There’s a steely resolve to Gerrard’s Rangers team. At times, they verge on the side of over-cautiousness, but the Ibrox side are undoubtedly much tougher to beat than they were when the former England and Liverpool midfielder took over. For years, it felt like Rangers were only ever a game or two away from calamity. That sense has been vanquished.
And it would be vanquished further with a derby win over Celtic just three games into the season. Two victories over their rivals last season did a lot to dispel the inferiority complex that affected Rangers in Old Firm derbies for years, and now they have the platform to turn the dynamic of the rivalry on its head.
Of course, this weekend’s match also presents Celtic with an opportunity. A sense of malaise has simmered at the club since Lennon’s appointment as permanent manager at the end of last season. It has boiled to the surface in light of Celtic’s failure to qualify for the Champions League and the club’s lack of activity in the transfer market.
A win at Ibrox would prove that, despite all this, it’s business as usual for Celtic.
Lennon and his team can render all the negativity and pessimism that has characterised their start to the season as overblown. Victory would reassure Celtic’s fans that their target of a fabled ’10-in-a-row’ is not in jeopardy.
Even this early in the season, the first Old Firm derby arrives as a pivotal moment in the Scottish title race. Nothing will be decided on Sunday, but Rangers in particular have a chance to underline their credentials. One way or another, there will be a symbolism attached to the result of this weekend’s clash.