Rangers go into the international break two points clear of champions Celtic after a dramatic weekend of action in the Scottish Premiership – but are they now the favourites to win the title?
Steven Gerrard’s side leading the way going into the international fixtures this month looked highly unlikely at the start of September – they had just lost the first Old Firm game of the season as Celtic extended their perfect start to the domestic campaign.
However, four wins from four with 17 goals scored and just one conceded since then has propelled them to the top of the league ahead of the European Qualifiers this week.
Celtic have let their early lead and momentum slip after dropping points away to Hibernian before succumbing to their first league defeat of the season with a 2-0 loss at Livingston on Sunday.
Indeed, there has been a significant swing in goal difference between the two sides as well, with Rangers’ back-to-back 5-0 wins over Aberdeen and Hamilton wiping out Celtic’s early advantage which had been gained after hitting 12 goals in their opening two fixtures.
Neil Lennon’s side will point to tough away fixtures at Easter Road – a ground where Brendan Rodgers failed to win in the league during his time at the club, ironically against Lennon – and on the plastic pitch at Livingston. However, one point from six represents a worrying return from a side who had been imperious in the league beforehand.
Gerrard says it is too early for title talk after Rangers spent time on top before faltering last season – but are things different this time around? Who are the favourites now?
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Sky Sports Scotland pundit Kris Boyd
Only a fool would predict who is going to win the Premiership at this stage of the season but at least we have a proper title race. We have not really had one for the last few years but there is a genuine feeling in Scotland that there is a real title race this time.
Rangers fans believe, the Rangers dressing room will believe and it will be exactly the same at Celtic and it is incredibly exciting for the neutral.
December is going to be a crucial month – it usually is. And the fixtures in December are tough for both teams. Whatever side picks up more points that month, that will stand them in good stead. Look at Celtic after the Christmas break last year, they were absolutely on it, but Rangers will not make the same mistakes they did last season after the break. It can change so quickly.
- Celtic fixtures
- Rangers fixtures
Last season was a learning curve for Rangers. Allan McGregor, Steven Davis – these guys have been there before, but last season when Celtic dropped points a lot of the time Rangers froze and let them back in.
Sunday showed a change. Celtic lost and the Rangers thinking was ‘we need to win’, and it was emphatic in the 5-0 victory over Hamilton. It is back to what it was like years ago with both teams battling away.
In a title race, if you play first you are desperate to win to put the team who plays second under pressure and Celtic are now in a position that they have not been in for a very long time – they need to win every game again as I think Rangers are ready to push them and there will not be many points dropped by either side to the other teams.
That is why it could come down to the Old Firm games. Rangers have shown they are now more than a match for anyone but they froze the last time out at Ibrox against Celtic.
Neil Lennon will not panic – you are always under pressure at Rangers and Celtic. When you drop points sometimes it is not a bad thing to get the international break and you can all get away because there will be shock that they have lost to Livingston. Sometimes cliques can form in the dressing room – ‘is he pulling his weight’ or ‘are they working hard enough’. It does happen.
On the other side for Rangers, when you are winning games all you want to do is keep playing. They are creating lots of chances and scoring goals – Alfredo Morelos and Jermain Defoe have scored 24 goals between them, it is a phenomenal return given they are not playing together and in every game.
I feel Celtic are an Odsonne Edouard injury or suspension away from being in a difficult position. There is no doubt that he is the one who makes them tick. He was quiet on Sunday and Celtic were poor. That would be a worry for the money they have spent – they are potentially one injury or suspension away from facing a real uphill task in a tight title race.
Sky Sports Scotland reporter Charles Paterson
Titles have never been won in October; it is a marathon, not a sprint. On the early evidence, the destiny of this season’s Scottish Premiership championship will not be decided until the final fixtures in mid-May.
There is no doubt that Rangers possess a stronger squad now than a year ago. Gerrard has created depth across all departments, but his most significant force are his two strikers. As long as Morelos and Defoe stay fit and in form, Rangers will continue to demolish lesser opposition such as Hamilton, home and away. One of Gerrard’s key demands pre-season was that his team show more consistency in results, and so far they have delivered.
Lennon must sit and stew on Celtic’s inept showing at Livingston through the international break, but he may be privately content at the start they have made to the season, especially given the rebuilding job required in defence during the summer. Seven of Celtic’s next nine games in all competitions are in Glasgow, including four of their next five league matches, so they have a good chance to re-establish momentum in the coming weeks.
Both managers have seen far too much in football to buy into title talk and hyperbole. Lennon has already gone head to head with Rangers over the course of a full season in 2010-2011, the last time there was a true “title race” in Scotland. He was pipped on the final day by Walter Smith’s Rangers – 92 points that season was not enough to earn Celtic the championship.
Gerrard, of course, knows from his time as a player with Liverpool not to look too far ahead, after his infamous slip in the Premier League run-in of 2014. If Rangers are still in the running after the league splits in the spring, his own personal, painful experiences may prove vital in maintaining his players’ focus.
What both men know is they face a real test of their managerial abilities over the next seven months. Squad management and rotation will be paramount, especially during December – when a key month of matches for both teams will tell us a lot more.
Celtic currently have eight league games, and Rangers seven, arranged for December, although this will change if either side (or both) reach the League Cup final. On paper, Rangers’ schedule is trickier, with trips to Aberdeen, Motherwell, Hibernian and Celtic; Celtic host Aberdeen, Hibernian and Rangers but also travel to face Hearts at Tynecastle. Whoever comes out of the Old Firm showdown happier on December 29 will carry significant momentum into the winter break.
Once January comes, expect reinvestment in both squads – and that is where Celtic may hold the trump card, due to their sizeable financial advantage. If a gap needs to be bridged, Celtic can do it – it is unlikely Rangers could match them in a bidding war.
Last winter, Rangers lost their first match after the winter break at Kilmarnock, while Celtic won eight consecutive league games, setting a pace their rivals could not match. The Scottish champions have been over this course before – Rangers are unproven at lasting the distance, but are now better placed than ever before to challenge.
Are they title favourites, though? Not yet – ask me again in January…
- ‘Scot Prem title race will go to the wire’
- Scottish Premiership fixtures
Sky Bet odds
There have been interesting developments in the title race betting between the Old Firm after both sides had contrasting results last weekend.
Before a ball was kicked in August, Sky Bet were 1/3 Celtic and 9/4 Rangers for the title but naturally those odds have moved significantly as Rangers went two points clear at the summit at the weekend. Sky Bet now offer 4/6 about Celtic retaining their title and 6/5 Rangers in what looks a straight shootout for the crown as it is 250/1 bar.
The bookies are cheering on Celtic as they are by far the better result while Rangers are a significant loser in the book as punters have got behind the Gers after their impressive start to the season. Sky Bet have laid 9/4, 7/4, 13/8 and are now 6/5 after the weekend results and have seen good support at all those prices for Gerrard’s men.
Celtic are now 6/1 to do a complete clean sweep of domestic honours having been as short as 7/2 earlier in the season. Rangers are still considered second best against their neighbours in both cup competitions and are 20/1 to do the domestic treble but that could change as both sides have avoided each other in the semi-finals of the Betfred Cup in November and a potential Old Firm final is on the cards.
Premiership title odds from Sky Bet:
4/6 Celtic (was 1/3 start of season)
6/5 Rangers (was 9/4 start of season)
Scott Brown – Celtic can bounce back
“It’s disappointing, especially going into the international break when you have a couple of weeks until your next game. But sometimes it’s good for you as well.
“We’ve lost the lead during the season before and we’ve managed to bounce back. This team has that grit and willingness to win games we probably shouldn’t. It wasn’t our day [against Livingston], we didn’t perform as well.
“But it’s a long season and we know we can do better.”
Steven Gerrard – We are better than last year
“I’m not going to get involved in any top-of-the-table talk. My job’s to win football matches, and as many as I can, and focus on the next game. There’s a break now and I worry about what I have to do to try and beat Hearts. That’s all I will focus on.
“It’s still very early days in the season. I have said to the players not to get carried away, there’s a lot of hard work. We have still got to improve, we have still got to grow. But the answer to the question is yes, we are better than last year, and yes, we are stronger. The 11 is stronger, the squad is stronger, and we’ve got people coming back from injury. So we’re in a good place.
“Look, it’s October. There’s still tons and tons of football to be played. This time in the last block of fixtures we lost an Old Firm 2-0 and a lot of criticism came our way, and rightly so because we didn’t perform well enough on the day. So we all deserved that.
“This time round we have won four out of four in the league and lot of strong, positive performances, especially here at home, we have shown a lot of hunger and aggressive play about us. So that’s what I am looking for, but it’s October and there’s no point worrying about where we stand in the league or getting carried away.”
- Live football on Sky Sports this week
- Scottish Premiership fixtures live on Sky
Rangers face a trip to Edinburgh to play Hearts upon their return to Premiership action after the break. A win in this fixture last season saw Gerrard take his side top of the table for the first time in his reign but it was not to last for long. Even though Craig Levein’s side sit ninth in the table, Gerrard will be wary of dropping points in a frantic and intense atmosphere in Gorgie.
Gerrard’s team then have to contend with a Europa League trip to Porto before hosting high-flying Motherwell, who are third after an impressive start to the season, before a long midweek trip north to Dingwall to play Ross County on October 30.
Celtic return to Parkhead following the international break where they will be looking to get back to winning ways against Ross County. The visits of Lazio in the Europa League and St Mirren domestically come either side of a tricky trip north to face Aberdeen on October 27.
Lennon’s side have an impressive record at Pittodrie in recent seasons but this is a wounded Aberdeen with plenty to prove after their 5-0 defeat at Ibrox and Betfred Cup quarter-final exit to Hearts.
Confirmed Scottish Premiership games on Sky
Sun Nov 10: Livingston vs Rangers (3pm)
Sun Nov 24: St Johnstone vs Aberdeen (3pm)
Sun Dec 1: Ross County vs Celtic (12pm)
Wed Dec 4: Aberdeen vs Rangers (7.45pm)
Sun Dec 15: Motherwell vs Rangers (12pm)
Thu Dec 26: Hearts vs Hibs (12.30pm)
Sun Dec 29: Celtic vs Rangers (12.30pm)
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