Celtic have the chance to all but seal a record-equalling ninth league title in a row with victory in the fourth – and potentially final – Old Firm derby of the season.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement on Thursday that all mass gatherings of 500+ people will likely be cancelled from next week means Sunday’s match at Ibrox will go ahead as planned. What happens after that is very much up in the air. A postponement, outright cancellation, or the continuation of the league behind closed doors are all possibilities. The precedent being set by other European leagues makes the last option unlikely.
Last night’s breaking news of positive Coronavirus tests for Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta and Chelsea player Callum Hudson-Odoi is a sobering reality check for British sport. Until advised otherwise, though, the Scottish Premiership carries on as normal.
On the brink of history
Rangers dismal form since returning from the winter break has made this a much lesser showdown than it could have been. A win at Celtic Park in December appeared to set up a tantalising Old Firm title race. Just over two months later, and Celtic are 16 points clear. Even two derby victories for Rangers would most likely still see them fall short.
It’s been a remarkable turnaround. Celtic and Neil Lennon deserve tremendous credit for the way they have ruthlessly taken advantage of Rangers slips. On paper, it was Steven Gerrard’s side who had the softer run of games coming back from the winter break. But while they have been dropping points against the league’s bottom two sides Hamilton and Hearts, Celtic are unbeaten in 10. A 1-1 draw with Livingston at the Tony Macaroni Arena has been their only dropped points in that run. The manner of victories has been equally impressive. In 13 total domestic fixtures in 2020, they have scored 40 and conceded only seven.
A pathetic defensive display in the Europa League second leg defeat to Copenhagen did dampen spirits significantly. However, having reached the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup they are now realistically only two wins away from a fourth consecutive treble. Combine that with a tilt for 10-in-a-row next year and all will be forgiven
Griffiths must start Old Firm
The aim now must be to inflict maximum misery and ramp up the pressure on Gerrard even more. To do so, Lennon must stick to the formation and personnel that has been working so well domestically. The decision to a 4-2-3-1 in Europe proved ill-fated. It didn’t work, meaning Leigh Griffiths has surely earned his place in the starting line-up.
The 29-year old has been improving week-on-week and his hat-trick against St Mirren last week could be a seminal moment in his career. The three matches Griffiths hasn’t started in 2020 are the only three games Celtic have failed to win. Only his strike partner Odsonne Edouard has bettered Griffiths return of seven goals in that time frame. Somehow, he is only three goals behind Alfredo Morelos in the Scottish Premiership’s top scorer list.
The other options have much less appeal. Moi Elyounoussi was tried as a partner for Edouard against Livingston but was hooked early. Ryan Christie is a more viable alternative if Lennon wants to play with either Olivier Ntcham or Tom Rogic in midfield, although it’s not an area where he can be most effective.
Such a luxury of options is inexorably described as a ‘nice problem to have’ in managerial cliché bingo, but it does put more pressure on Lennon to get it right. Celtic’s last two Old Firm performances underline the importance of getting tactics spot on from the start. Nail it, and the title party begins.