Old Firm showdown
Caixinha ready to take Celtic by the horns
As an accomplished bullfighter in his youth, new Rangers manager Pedro Caixinha will not be fazed by the prospect of locking horns with a formidable Celtic side in next Sunday’s Scottish Cup semi-final.
The Portuguese claims his coaching career has been helped greatly by lessons learned in his 90-odd confrontations in the bull ring: the importance of team-mates, the detailed preparation, analysis and the physical stress.
The 46-year-old has certainly put that learning curve to good use in establishing himself as a highly-rated manager.
After serving his apprenticeship as an assistant at clubs in Saudi Arabia, Greece and Romania and managing in Portugal, the former goalkeeper made his name in transforming the fortunes of Mexican club Santos Laguna.
He won three major titles and guided the team to the final of the 2013 CONCACAF Champions League, that success opening the door to a lucrative contract with Al-Gharafa in Qatar from where he joined the Light Blues on a three-year contract.
Next Sunday’s Hampden Park showdown will be the biggest test of his fledgling Ibrox career but as he did all those years ago as a forcado in the bullrings of Portugal, he will meet the challenge head on.
As he strides out at Hampden Park, the Rangers boss will be confident of inflicting a first domestic defeat on Celtic this season.
“We are in the cup semi-final, so we need to think about winning that trophy,” said Caixinha, who recently named former Ibrox star Jonatan Johansson as his No. 3 to work alongside assistant Helder Baptista.
The semi-final is the fifth meeting of the teams this season, with Celtic holding the upper hand.
Brendan Rodgers has masterminded three victories over the Gers – a 5-1 league win at Parkhead and a 2-1 victory at Ibrox augmented by a 1-0 triumph in the League Cup semi-final.
Caixinha watched from the stands last month as caretaker manager Graeme Murty brought a point back to Govan from the most recent fixture at Parkhead.
Beset by negativity throughout the majority of the season, there has been a lot of positive change for Rangers since that game with the team remaining unbeaten under the new man.
Mark Warburton’s successor has made it clear he wants his team to take a more aggressive approach to games, the defence has also improved beyond recognition – Rangers have yet to concede a goal since the Portuguese took charge – and there is a much stronger bond in the dressing room with players responding well to his style of management.
While legal issues continue to hang over the club off the park with doubts remaining over chairman Dave King’s financial commitment, the feel-good factor is returning on the pitch.
Key to that has been the form of the evergreen Kenny Miller, whose performances must surely be convincing Caixinha to retain the veteran’s services beyond this summer. His recruitment drive will make for interesting viewing, as will to what extent King loosens the purse strings.
Investment in experience will be required for progress to continue next season, although the new man at the helm has also shown he’s not afraid to give youth its chance with the likes of David Bates and Myles Beerman making their debuts since his arrival.
Rodgers’ men have proved themselves to be irresistible in the league, with a sixth successive title wrapped up before Easter.
With the Premiership crown having been secured to add to the League Cup, the runaway league champions will once again be heavy favourites to reach another final, where the winners of the Hibernian v Aberdeen semi will lie in wait.
But as Rangers underlined at Parkhead last month, on one-off occasions anything can happen.
“We need to think also about getting as close as possible to second position in the league,” said Caixinha. “You need to be ambitious, but you need to be realistic at the same time.
“We are being totally ambitious and realistic in saying that we would like to end up in the second position – and why not try to get a trophy in the Scottish Cup, too?”