Celtic and Rangers about to embark upon the most absorbing passage in their rivalry for many years

Roddy Forsyth
Celtic beat Rangers 2-0 at Ibrox back in September - Action Images via Reuters

Separated by only a single goal in the title race, scheduled to contest the Betfred Scottish League Cup final on Dec 8 and with the knockout stage of the Europa League in their sights, Celtic and Rangers are about to embark upon the most absorbing passage in their rivalry for many years.

The international break has allowed Neil Lennon and Steven Gerrard to step outside the Old Firm pressure chamber for a brief but welcome respite before they address the challenge of 11 fixtures in six weeks which include two derbies, at Hampden and Parkhead.

For Lennon, progress on all fronts stands in stark contrast to his situation in August, when a 4-3 home defeat by CFR Cluj ejected Celtic from the Champions League qualifiers and prompted a social media outpouring from disenchanted fans declaring that their club had appointed the wrong man as successor to Brendan Rodgers.

Cluj returned to the east end of Glasgow, this time to lose 2-0 as Lennon and his players rallied in a Europa League campaign that put them in the round of 32 with two games to spare. The crowning achievements of the group stage were consecutive 2-1 victories over Lazio, in which Celtic twice came from behind to win at the death.

Celtic’s victory in Rome marked the club’s first ever success against Italian opposition in Italy and was ranked by Lennon as a feat almost the equal of their legendary triumph over Barcelona in 2012, during his first spell in charge at Parkhead, so did the meetings with Lazio prompt him to re-examine his motives for quitting Celtic at the end of the 2013-14 season?

Celtic players celebrate their victory over Lazio with their supporters Credit: REX

“It was the right thing for me to do at the time but I wanted to bring those type of nights back to Celtic Park and the Lazio win was the perfect storm for a European game at Celtic Park,” he said.

“We got a taste of it against Cluj at home but Lazio was even better and I want more of it. Once you get a taste, you want the players and the fans to get more nights like that because we all enjoy it. It makes me never want to leave again, but I’m older and wiser now. “We’re top of the league, we’ve qualified from our Europa League group and we’re in a cup final. When I left first time around, I was ambitious and wanted to try other things, but I feel differently now.

“After Barcelona we changed the squad, we sold a lot of good players, and there was no Rangers. In my last year, we won the league by 29 points so you’re thinking, ‘Is it time for me to change and time for the club to make a change as well?’

“And having this opportunity again is fantastic, I’m really enjoying it. The fact that Rangers are back challenging drives me on too. It heightens the senses. I know it can flip very quickly but I can’t imagine a feeling like we had against Lazio that night anywhere else in football.”

On the other side of the city, Gerrard might also take time to savour what he has achieved at Ibrox, having steered Rangers to his first cup final as a manager, taken them close to Europa League qualification and produced what is, for the moment at least, a credible title challenge. 

The Rangers manager used to live directly across the street from Lennon but a move to bigger accommodation has allowed his family to join him in Glasgow and, when the international schedule offers a break, his priorities are clear.

“I switch off and start working on the Brownie points with my wife. Football? I don’t want to see a football,” Gerrard said. “It is school runs and totting up those Brownie points with the four kids and my wife. That’s what I do on international weekends.

“Before that, there’s no prouder man when the emails come flying in about international call-ups because it means that our players have done their job well first and foremost for Rangers.

“As someone who played international football for many, many years, I know the buzz, the feeling, the experience. Whether it be under- 21s or full internationals, I am proud and pleased for all the lads who get the call-ups.”

Despite having lost Ryan Jack for a spell to an injury aggravated while with Scotland, Gerrard has not laid down a code for players on international duty. “You need to be honest and use common sense,” he said. “But I would never ever have a conversation with a player and say, ‘Don’t do this and don’t do that’. They are all adults here.”