Celtic v Rangers: Neil Lennon aims to make case as Steven Gerrard looks for leaders
|Scottish Premiership: Celtic v Rangers|
|Venue: Celtic Park Date: Sunday, 31 March Kick-off: 12:00 GMT|
|Coverage: Live on BBC Radio Scotland, live text commentary on BBC Sport website & app|
Steven Gerrard gave a revealing insight into his own mentality when he spoke about his team's trip to Celtic Park on Sunday, a mission that will result in them falling 13 points behind Neil Lennon's side if the game goes as most people expect it to go.
The Rangers manager said, as a Liverpool player, it was always the away derbies that floated his boat, always the trips to Goodison Park and Old Trafford that he thrived on that little bit more than the reverse fixture at Anfield.
He said he loved the pressure, the intimidation, the verbals of a trip into hostile territory. He loved it because when he won the feeling was all the sweeter.
If you don't "man-up" and "take responsibility" in that kind of atmosphere then you aren't much use, he said. "It's gotta excite you. If any of my squad are fearing that, or don't fancy it, they're at the wrong club. I'd be so excited by it if I was a player."
'Gerrard needs characters & Morelos to deliver'
Apart from some dogged away performances in Europe, it's been pretty clear all season that the psychology Gerrard talks about is not the psychology he has in his dressing room. Rangers have dropped points in 13 league games as well as being dumped out of both cups by Aberdeen. That vulnerability is the stuff of a distant chasing pack not of title contenders.
Rangers shipped points not just against Celtic and Aberdeen but against Kilmarnock, Dundee, Hibernian, Motherwell, St Johnstone and Livingston. Their flakiness has meant that the champions have accelerated away to a double-digit lead without ever having to move out of third gear.
We'll get to what this game means to Lennon and Celtic in a minute, but let's dwell on Gerrard and Rangers for now. Gerrard has given debuts to 15 different players this season. In Scottish terms, the spending on fees, but mostly salaries, has been vast, but of all the new blood he has brought to the club it's a player that he inherited that has once again dominated the preamble to this game.
Enter Alfredo Morelos - El Bufalo of Ibrox, a man who has long since secured the 'Most Talked About Player in Scotland' award, an international striker for Colombia who needs just one more goal to become the first Rangers player in a decade to score 30 times in a single season.
Rangers have released an interview with Morelos on their TV channel in which he talks about the love he has for his family and his country and God and the appreciation he feels for all those who have helped become a success. It's personal and it's interesting. Morelos will hit that 30-mark, no doubt about it. But when?
And what makes a great Rangers striker? Presumably on the list of must-haves is a track record in inflicting pain on Celtic. For all his goals, Morelos hasn't scored in seven games and 9.5 hours against his biggest rival.
Since he joined Rangers, 35 different players have scored against Celtic in domestic competition, but he is not among them. Mikael Lustig, the Celtic defender, has scored more goals against Celtic in the last two seasons than Morelos has, if an own goal can be entered into the calculation.
Gerrard needs his players to metamorphose into the kind of characters he spoke about it in his press conference. And he needs Morelos to deliver at the eighth time of asking. Only a gambler would bank on one or both of those things happening.
'Rangers form line is no good'
In the last meeting at Ibrox, Ryan Jack got the decisive goal, but that was rare on two counts. Firstly, it led to a first Rangers win in 13 attempts. Secondly, the winner came from a midfielder. That lack of creativity and goal threat from the middle of the park remains one of the flaws of this team. Not the only one, but a significant one.
They have Ryan Kent, Daniel Candeias and Scott Arfield, but in all competitions they have contributed five, six and seven goals respectively, whereas Celtic's goal tally from midfield is more than double that. Ryan Christie, Scott Sinclair and James Forrest are on 10, 15 and 17.
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On the regular occasions that Celtic took Rangers to the cleaners under the manager now known to many of their support as B****** R******, it was their cleverness in midfield that did so much damage. In 13 Old Firm games, Celtic got 13 goals from six different midfielders - Tom Rogic got the most with four - while Rangers' midfield contributed just three.
That lack of wit and leadership has been a big part of the gulf between the sides. When Rangers finally managed to shut Celtic down and get their own midfield on the front foot they won with that goal from Jack. The chances of that happening again on Sunday? Slight. Celtic are not playing well, but Rangers have three draws and one loss from their last four games. That form-line is no good.
'Can Lennon make case in lion's den?'
You could say that the pressure is all on Rangers - if they fall 13 points behind, the supporter post-mortem will spare no-one - but there's heat on Lennon as well. He's auditioning for the role of permanent Celtic manager. He's desperate for it and the board want to give it to him, but he still needs to lay down his case.
The victory sprint at Dens Park last time out showed his passion but the performance that preceded it was not good.
Sunday is Lennon's biggest test, however. A win and it might not just be be league that'll be done, it might be the succession race as well. A defeat, especially in front of his own people, and his credentials look seriously compromised.
Rodgers won 65 out of 66 games at home in domestic competition. Lennon dare not slip up in just his second. It would be a major upset if he did. Celtic haven't had to hit turbo much this season but you feel that they still have the gas when they really need it.
On Friday, Gerrard came up with a funny answer when it was put to him that Rangers are entering the lion's den. "What do you mean by lion's den?" he replied. "Not gonna be any lions there, is there? A lion's den is if you jump over a cage and you've got four lions chasing you and you're fearing for your life."
Not an actual lion's den, fair enough. But a footballing one - and the half-smile on his face told you that he knew it.