When Rangers won at Celtic Park on 28 December, many took it as a statement of real intent. The old Rangers were back, ready to dethrone Celtic on their quest for 10-in-a-row. Some pundits went as far as to suggest they were now title favourites.
A month later and the pendulum has swung dramatically. Celtic have flown out of the blocks post-winter break with five wins from five scoring 15 goals in the process. Rangers, though, have stumbled. Five points have been dropped within the space of a week after losing to Hearts and drawing with Aberdeen.
Some fans on both sides of the Glasgow divide are convinced the title race is now over after Celtic took advantage of that dip in form. Sunday’s 4-1 win over Hamilton extended their lead at the top to seven points.
Cheers Rangers. 👎
Welcome to the party. 7 clear. 9 in a row 💃 pic.twitter.com/chka3dCVWS
— jake hughes (@Jake_Hughesss) February 2, 2020
— Alan M. (@Bluemaxx_uk) February 1, 2020
Blown the league again by the look of it. Same as last year.
— Deathisanexit (@CraigSim) February 1, 2020
Rangers dropping two points today has ended the title race in my opinion. Even with a game in hand if Celtic win tomorrow that’s it. Today they lacked bite and were really poor in the final third. Sam Cosgrove should have converted a one-on-one in the first half for the Don’s.
— Josh Bunting (@Buntingfootball) February 2, 2020
Such statements, though, are foolish in the extreme. As Steven Gerrard said in his post-match interview, there will be plenty of twists and turns yet to come in this dramatic title race.
Celtic survive Hamilton scare
In the end, the scoreline was emphatic. But that wasn’t the case until the 78th minute of a tense encounter at New Douglas Park. 10-man Hamilton were stubborn and took a deserved lead in the first half. A credible case for a red card against Leigh Griffiths was dismissed by referee Nick Walsh, a decision that would prove crucial.
Should Leigh Griffiths have got a red card? 🟥
— BBC Sport Scotland (@BBCSportScot) February 3, 2020
Griffiths went on to draw the foul that resulted in Jamie Hamilton’s sending off. As soon as Odsonne Edouard smashed home the resultant free-kick, it became a matter of when rather than if Celtic would break the home team’s resistance. Centre back Christopher Jullien – with a centre forward’s quality of finish – was the man to oblige. The continued brilliance of Edouard ensured the Hoops stretched away in the final 10 minutes.
But this game should serve as a warning to Neil Lennon and his side. Yes, there will be days like the St Johnstone game where Celtic blow opponents away. Equally, though, any team in the SPFL can upset the champions on their day. Playing against the Old Firm can be like a cup final for some teams and up until the red card, Hamilton had proven more than a match for their illustrious opponents.
The last two unacceptable Old Firm performances does appear to have rattled a retaliation. Celtic must approach every game with the same intensity as their opponents or risk their downfall. One eye will always be on what is happening across the city, but that can’t distract from their own responsibilities.
Rangers have the quality to bounce back
Rangers struggles coming out of the winter break mirror what happened last year. Riding a wave of momentum after beating Celtic, they lost to Kilmarnock in their first league game of 2019. Celtic survived a managerial change to ease their way to an 8th title on the trot. Is history about to repeat itself?
Psychologically that may be a barrier. In pure sporting terms, though, they can look at their record until now and feel confident. Only four defeats in all competitions this season. At Ibrox, they’ve kept six clean sheets in a row in the league and conceded once in their last eight (Transfermarkt).
A couple of off performances doesn’t mean they won’t bounce back. The gap could still be four points if they win their game in hand against St Johnstone. With two Old Firm meetings left, Gerrard can cling to the knowledge that matching the remainder of Celtic’s results and winning those derbies would be enough to clinch the title. Given the way his team have performed in the last two Old Firms, that’s far from an impossibility.
How both teams fare in the Europa League will also have a profound effect. It’s been shown in the past that fruitful European campaigns don’t necessarily translate to domestic success. Celtic lost the league on the final day in 2003 after reaching the UEFA Cup final. Rangers repeated that trick in 2008. Both sides have winnable last-32 ties which could yet turn out to be a double-edged sword. The only thing that can be said for certain is that this title race is far from over.