The build-up to recent Old Firm derbies has followed a familiar pattern. September’s clash between Celtic and Rangers was the biggest for years, as was the one before that and the one before that and the one before that… you get the idea. This time, though, a clash for the ages is truly in the offing.
This season has seen the deep-rooted rivalry between the two Glasgow teams move into something of a new era. In recent years, the contest has been decidedly one-sided, with Celtic winning eight straight top-flight titles and nine straight domestic honours. Last season’s Scottish Cup triumph secured a so-called ‘Treble Treble’ – three Treble-winning seasons in a row.
Now, however, there is a different dynamic. Rangers’ improvement under Steven Gerrard can no longer be denied, with the Ibrox side tied with Celtic at the top of the Scottish Premiership table, winning 12 of their opening 14 league fixtures. For the first time in the best part of a decade, Celtic’s supremacy at the top of the Scottish game is no longer a given.
It’s for this reason that there will be a certain symbolism attached to this weekend’s Scottish League Cup final no matter the outcome. For both teams, this is a match laden with opportunity and could set the tone for the whole season ahead. There is no clear favourite. It could hardly be any more compelling.
Celtic have overcome early season vulnerabilities to really find their groove under Neil Lennon in recent weeks. While they were probably a better coached, more rounded, perhaps more consistent team with Brendan Rodgers at the helm, the Hoops have been much more fun to watch this season under Lennon.
Indeed, there is a sense that Celtic can blow away most opponents on their day, with Odsonne Edouard, James Forrest, Mohamed Elyounoussi and Callum McGregor, among others, all thriving. They are Scotland’s top scorers with 44 goals in 14 league matches and have carried that into their Europa League form as well, qualifying for the competition’s last 32 with two games to spare.
Rangers aren’t in bad shape either, losing just once (to Celtic) all season long. Gerrard has moulded a well-organised, well-drilled side capable of opening things up in the final third when required. There is a balance to the Ibrox side that has been desperately lacking in recent seasons while Gerrard has improved a number of underperforming players already at the club – see Ryan Jack.
Then there’s Alfredo Morelos, the Colombian striker who has already scored 25 times this season. Last season, Morelos was a hot head, sent off an astonishing five times over the course of the campaign. Now, he’s just red hot, finding the net 11 times in his last 10 outings. Stopping Morelos will be Celtic’s biggest objective this weekend.
Recently, this fixture has been defined by an element of weakness, largely from the Rangers side, but Sunday’s match at Hampden Park should provide an illustration of strength. These are two teams riding the crest of a wave. Victory will see one continue on that wave, while the other will plunge into the waters of Scottish football’s infamous fickleness, something that has been avoided until now.
Sunday’s match might not only set the tone for this season, but for seasons to come. This isn’t to say that the pendulum of rivalry won’t swing back and forth a few more times over the next few weeks, months, even years, but this will be the first duel of a battle likely to define a whole era of Scottish football. It may have been said countless times ahead of recent Old Firm derbies, but seriously… don’t miss this one.