Rangers v Celtic: Different 10-in-a-row will be focus in League Cup final
|Scottish League Cup final: Rangers v Celtic|
|Venue: Hampden Park Date: Sunday, 8 December Time: 15:00 GMT|
|Coverage: Listen live on BBC Radio Scotland and follow live text commentary on the BBC Sport Scotland website and app.|
The increasingly insistent talk in the tumult of Glasgow football has been of 10-in-a-row.
But rather than consecutive league titles, it is a more immediate 10-in-a-row that will occupy minds at Hampden on Sunday when Rangers and Celtic meet in the Scottish League Cup final.
The Parkhead side have ruthlessly harvested the last nine Scottish trophies - the treble treble. A 10th is now in their sights.
Under Brendan Rodgers and, latterly, Neil Lennon, Celtic's domestic cup record is astounding. Thirty consecutive victories. An aggregate score of 95-11.
They are unbeaten since a Scottish Cup semi-final shootout defeat at the hands of their Old Firm rivals in April 2016 under the command of Ronny Deila. Barack Obama was the US president and Steven Gerrard was thrashing around in MLS with LA Galaxy.
Celtic's remarkable run has to end some time and many think that time could be on Sunday. Does that bring an extra burden? Lennon scoffs at the idea. He talks about his players' "relentlessness" and their "refusal to lose" with a defiance hewn by 11 consecutive wins and the knowledge that this is a squad that has been there, done it, and skelped whoever has been put in their path on such occasions.
These are the things the Celtic manager would be expected to say, but Lennon also acknowledges that Rangers have improved. Of the six cup finals that comprised the treble treble, none were against Rangers. That fact speaks to said improvement, but also to the ratcheting up of import and intrigue around this particular contest.
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'Gerrard needs prize to add to undeniable progress'
This season's Scottish Premiership title race is indicative of how little there is between the teams.
Celtic opened a two-point lead on Wednesday after several weeks of the sides being split only by goal difference. Both have only lost once - Rangers to Celtic, whose sole slip-up was at Livingston - and all the indications are that this tense tussle will continue long into the spring.
But what effect will this final have on the league campaign? Would a Celtic win arrest a growing sense of belief around Rangers that they can end their rivals run of eight consecutive titles? Or would a Rangers triumph denude Celtic of their sense of invincibility and allow doubt to infect them?
Rangers manager Gerrard talked on Friday of how claiming the cup would be a "huge lift" to his squad and spoke of the importance of franking his side's undeniable progress with a tangible reward.
"I'm sure there will be benefits from doing that," he said, with a nod to the months and battles ahead.
It is certainly the case that Rangers are a different animal this season.
Last November, they lost impotently to Aberdeen in the semi-finals of this competition and went on to meekly depart the Europa League at the group stages. Granted, they went into the winter break level with Celtic after beating them at Ibrox, but few would look at Rangers then and claim them to be anything other than weaker than they are now.
In their opening 15 games this season, they have scored more and conceded fewer. They are a home draw away from the last 32 of the Europa League. And they have shown their mettle in pressure games - both in Europe and when responding to Celtic's results to keep pace in the Premiership.
One exception was, of course, the only Old Firm derby of the campaign. On the first day of September, Rangers were well beaten 2-0 at Ibrox by a Celtic side who had lost their previous two visits. For all they will protest to the contrary, revenge will be on the minds of those in blue at Hampden.
Gerrard, too, will know that the outcome of this contest will heavily dictate the narrative of his tenure. The Englishman - no stranger to success - has been in charge for 19 months now and needs something other than praise, progress and - seemingly - an extended contract to show for his work.
And regardless of all their travails in recent times, the fact that it has now been more than eight years since a major trophy was celebrated by the Rangers support will be considered unacceptable.
Their minds have long been fixed on preventing 'the 10', but first they need their side to deny Celtic a similarly significant milestone.