Rangers may improve but Celtic remain huge obstacle for Steven Gerrard
|Scottish Premiership: Kilmarnock v Rangers|
|Venue: Rugby Park Date: Sunday, 4 August Kick-off: 13:30 BST|
|Coverage: Listen on BBC Radio Scotland; live text commentary on the BBC Sport website and app|
On Friday Steven Gerrard presented an alternative take on the events of last season's Scottish Premiership campaign. He spoke about the wastefulness of his team late in games, their tendency to get caught out in the dying moments.
Three points became one against Aberdeen in the 90th minute, three points became one against Motherwell also in the 90th minute. They were winning against Hibernian but a victory became a draw in the 86th minute. They were drawing against Celtic but one point became no points, again in the 86th minute.
On the final day of the league campaign they were locked at 1-1 with Kilmarnock when Steve Clarke's side got an 89th-minute winner.
"Having analysed last season if the games finished after 86 minutes we'd have won the league," said Gerrard. "That's the brutal truth."
It is and it isn't. If all of Rangers games ended in the 86th minute then Celtic would have still won the title by a point. Gerrard's analysis is only correct if you end all of Celtic's game in the 86th minute as well. This 86th-minute claim? It's a bit trippy.
We may as well argue that if the league ended at the beginning of November then Hearts would be champions. It doesn't. They weren't. And that, for sure, is the brutal truth.
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You could see what Gerrard was driving at, though. If this season his team can play for 90 minutes as opposed to 86 then they won't drop so many cheap points and as a consequence their tally could be high enough to breach the gap and take the title. If. That's the operative word hanging over Rangers. They're one giant 'if'.
If they see out games better. If Celtic stand still. If Aberdeen don't raise a gallop. If all their new players come down the stretch with the title in sight and don't blink. If, if, if. Anybody who is predicting a sustained title challenge is really just hoping - or bluffing.
Nobody knows because at this stage of the season it's impossible to call what impact the loss of Ryan Kent will have or what impact Alfredo Morelos will have given the ongoing circus around him.
Does Morelos want to stay or go? His manager has asked him to clarify it publicly and he's been unable to persuade him, or his agent, to do so. There's a lot going on in the Morelos story right now. None of it is helping Gerrard.
Rangers have been busy in the transfer market. You'd say that when their first-choice team beds in it will probably include three brand new players - Filip Helander, Sheyi Ojo and Joe Aribo. The reports on all three are good, particularly on Ojo and Aribo, who look clever and dangerous attackers.
There's talent in this Rangers team, but only Allan McGregor and Steven Davis have gone to the wire in a league campaign in Scotland and won.
You could also hang your hat on the vastly experienced Jermain Defoe in such pressurised circumstances, but the rest?
If they somehow get themselves into a winning position they might all turn into ruthless machines capable of churning out the wins required despite the suffocating heat. Or they might fold. We can't know how they will react unless they get themselves into the situation - and that's where the 'if' comes back into play.
You have to imagine that they're not going to drop points in 15 league games for a second straight season.
Ten of those points were shipped against Kilmarnock, six against Hibs, five against Aberdeen. They dropped points to four of the bottom six. Let's assume that they clean up their act on that front.
Let's assume also that the discipline issues that cost them league points will also be cleaned up. A few assumptions here, but let's go with it.
One assumption too far, however, is that Celtic will be as lax in this league season as they have been in the previous two when they won the title in third or fourth gear, dropping points in 11 games last season and in 14 the season before.
A Rangers title challenge doesn't just begin and end with Rangers. It's predicated on Celtic standing still or going backwards and that's hard to see. Middle to front, Celtic look seriously strong again. Ryan Christie only played in 60% of their league games last season. Mikey Johnston only played in 40%. Leigh Griffiths played a whole lot less than that.
All three of them scored in Saturday's 7-0 win over St Johnstone. Christie, in particular, was outstanding. Celtic finished on 77 league goals last season when their average over their first seven titles in this run was 91. In one game they're already 9% of the way there to matching last season's mark. St Johnstone defended abysmally, that's true, but Celtic look a different attacking proposition this time around.
Rangers, then, have an even bigger job on their jobs. The squad additions will give them a genuine shot at topping their points total from last season. It would be a surprise if they weren't 10 points better off. The problem for them is that Celtic don't look in a mood to slide.
Gerrard has coped well with the intensity of life at Rangers. He's moved them forward. He's given the fans hope. What he needs to give them now is a trophy. A cup, perhaps. Even with the most powerful magnifying glass it's very, very hard to see him delivering a league.