Old Firm showdown
Ibrox sensing a change of fortune
Jason Cummings, right, has helped bring back a feelgood factor (pic: SNS Group)
Rangers v Celtic
Sunday: kick off – noon
Rangers’ renaissance will be put to the ultimate test on Sunday as the Ibrox side attempt to underline their title credentials in the most anticipated Old Firm derby for some years.
After such a long period of Celtic dominance of the fixture, there is growing belief that their traditional rivals are emerging from their darkest days and could even deny the green half of the city another league triumph.
Life in Govan is good these days, Graeme Murty having engineered an impressive turnaround since taking over from Pedro Caixinha earlier in the season.
Many think he has done enough to warrant an extended period in charge beyond the end of the campaign. Should he mastermind an Old Firm victory for the first time in eight league clashes for the Light Blues, Dave King will be hard pressed to ignore his claims.
A home win on Sunday will cut Celtic’s lead at the top to just three points, albeit Brendan Rodgers’ side have played a game less.
That is a scenario that was almost impossible to imagine after last season when champions Celtic finished a distant 39 points ahead of their arch rivals after going through the campaign unbeaten.
Much has changed since then and intrigue in the fixture is arguably at its highest for years. Rangers fans will make their way to Ibrox with a rare feeling of confidence and there is even talk of Sir David Murray returning, although only as a minority investor in a new share issue.
While the club’s finances remain fragile, and King faces a Takeover Panel order to compensate shareholders, the on-field mood has not been better for some time.
The last six league games make for enjoyable reading for Gers supporters with their side having underpinned a magnificent run of six straight wins by amassing more goals, more points and more victories than Celtic in that period.
Momentum and confidence are key in football, and in that regard Murty’s men could not be better placed. However, expectancy brings its own challenges and how his players cope with that will be important as they try to register a first win in the league over Celtic since March 2012.
Graeme Murty: making a strong claim for a permanent deal (pic: SNS Group)
Win and it will be proof that Rangers are back. Lose and Murty can still point to the upturn in form under his guidance.
Nobody outside Ibrox expected the side to be anywhere near Celtic at this stage of the campaign so in some regard it’s a free hit for the manager.
Rodgers has tried to turn up the heat on his opposite number by claiming the pressure is on the home side but in reality the opposite is the case.
Celtic have been an immovable domestic force since the Northern Irishman’s arrival and it will be inconceivable for Hoops fans to think they may lose their crown to Rangers this season. A seventh straight title was a formality, or so they thought.
Cracks have been starting to show and there can be no doubt Celtic are not the same stylish force this season.
Injuries to key players, especially up front, has blunted their cutting edge, while defensive frailties have haunted them all season.
With Jason Cummings having been brought in to add firepower to the Ibrox front line alongside Alfredo Morelos, the league’s top scorer this season, Rangers have the potency to hurt their opponents.
But it has been a while since Celtic relished such a challenge from Rangers, and that could spell trouble for the home side on Sunday.