Celtic and Rangers both registered narrow wins yesterday as the Scottish Premiership title race hots up ahead of the third Old Firm meeting of the season.
Callum McGregor and James Forrest were the goalscorers as Celtic maintained their five-point lead with victory over St Mirren. It also marked their 11th consecutive league win since suffering their only domestic reverse of the season against Livingston. A powerful run typical of Neil Lennon’s serial winners, but that form will be fully tested at Celtic Park on Sunday.
Steven Gerrard has enjoyed slightly more success in this fixture than any of his immediate predecessors. But despite two wins from four attempts last season, they were still powerless to stop Celtic romping to another treble. Beaten in the league at Ibrox in September, Celtic then inflicted arguably the toughest defeat yet on their eternal rivals with a 1-0 win in the League Cup final. A game utterly dominated by Rangers, Christopher Jullien’s suspiciously offside-looking goal earned Celtic the first trophy of the year.
That piles the pressure onto Rangers as Celtic try to hold off the strongest challenge any side has put up against them in years. Here, we look at the key battles ahead of Sunday’s showdown:
Fraser Forster vs Alfredo Morelos
Morelos came off the bench to save Rangers against Kilmarnock yesterday with his 28th goal of the season. Now he must come face-to-face again with the man who denied him so often earlier this month. Forster was unbeatable on a day will forever be remembered as the ‘Forster final’.
In Morelos’ career to date, there has only been one team which he has faced more than twice that he’s failed to score against which is Celtic (Transfermarkt). A combination of bad misses, bad luck and great saves has created what seems like a curse any time he steps foot onto an Old Firm pitch. Jermain Defoe was selected ahead of him for this game in September and he also started in yesterday’s win.
Surely, though, it will be Morelos who leads the line again this weekend. No doubt it’ll be with the gloating jeers of the Celtic support ringing in his ears. His last visit to the east end of Glasgow ended in disgrace with a red card for lashing out at Scott Brown. Forster or the Celtic defence must gain an early upper hand on the Colombian to play on that fragile mindset.
Jeremie Frimpong vs Ryan Kent
Celtic’s 19-year old prodigy was their best outfield player in the League Cup final until his unfortunate sending off. Dynamic going forward and solid at the back, he successfully stifled Kent at Hampden earlier this month. Frimpong has been on the winning side in every one of his 13 Celtic appearances, only conceding six goals in the process. He looks certain to start once again with Hatem Abd Elhamed ruled out until after the winter break.
Kent became Rangers most expensive purchase since 2005 when he made his loan move permanent in the summer. The former Liverpool winger effectively ended both Mikael Lustig and Dedryck Boyata’s Celtic careers with a couple of electric performances in Old Firm derbies last season. He returned to Ibrox for the princely sum of £7m at the very end of the summer transfer window as a response to Rangers defeat in the first Old Firm derby of the season.
Since then, he has scored four and notched three assists in all competitions but hasn’t offered a consistent threat. If Frimpong can get Kent playing on the back foot, then Celtic will be well set-up to claim a vital three points.
Scott Brown, Callum McGregor, Olivier Ntcham vs Ryan Jack, Steve Davis, Glen Kamara
Celtic may have won both Old Firm derbies this season, but they have struggled to control the midfield. At Ibrox, that was by design as Neil Lennon abandoned Brendan Rodgers’ possession-first policy. They sat deep and took advantage of Rangers weakness on the wings in a thoroughly deserved 2-0 win.
Celtic enjoyed more of the ball in the cup final, but Brown and McGregor were too often overwhelmed by Rangers extra bodies. Moi Elyounoussi was a mere shadow in that first half as the Hoops were second to every ball. The Norwegian’s subsequent injury has prompted a shift in style from Lennon which could prove beneficial in winning the crucial midfield battle. Ntcham has come into the starting line-up with Ryan Christie moved from the number 10 role onto the right-wing.
Complaints within the Celtic fanbase have been registered at that move as it takes Christie – and by proxy James Forrest – away from their strongest positions. However, Christie’s tendency to drift inside should help if Gerrard once again loads up on central midfielders. Steven Davis returned from injury as a substitute yesterday and will be in contention to start on Sunday. Should he be included along with Jack, Kamara, and Arfield it will create a very congested middle third. If Brown and company come out on top, so should Celtic.