“I’ve watched it a million times!”
Nikola Katic’s response to being asked about his winning goal against Celtic three-and-a-half weeks ago will be echoed by Rangers supporters everywhere. Ever since the Croatian defender’s decisive leap decided the Old Firm game on December 29 the Scottish Premiership has been in cold storage.
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The league, and the closest title race in years, restarts on Wednesday evening – the first of three full midweek fixture cards in the next four weeks.
How defining a moment Katic’s goal may be will not be known until May, but its current significance cannot be underestimated. Without it Rangers would be five points adrift of Celtic; as it is, they sit two points behind with a game in hand. This week’s home fixture against St Mirren is the first of four out of five at Ibrox. Celtic, by contrast, play four of their next five away, starting at Kilmarnock, live on Sky Sports.
- Celtic fixtures
- Rangers fixtures
Kilmarnock vs Celtic
January 22, 2020, 7:15pm
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Ironically, Rugby Park is where Rangers came unstuck 12 months ago in their first game after the winter break. Jermain Defoe scored on his debut but Jordan Jones hit the winner against the club he then joined in the summer.
Rangers had been joint top of the league going into the game but their slip-up on the artificial surface handed Celtic a priceless initiative. The champions embarked on an eight-game winning streak, creating a cushion they never relinquished.
A year on, it is Celtic who must negotiate the hazardous trip down the M77. Kilmarnock under Alex Dyer are stubborn and persistent in their own stadium, and it took a stoppage-time winner from Scott Brown to secure victory during the teams’ most recent meeting there last February.
The margin for error Celtic held going into the derby has disappeared; over the next fortnight they will walk a tightrope of tricky, but winnable away fixtures at St Johnstone, Hamilton and Motherwell. Rangers host Ross County, Aberdeen and Hibernian at the same time, with a trip to bottom-of-the-table Hearts sandwiched in between – on paper perhaps slightly more demanding, but the advantage of being at Ibrox is huge.
Neil Lennon has been proactive in his response to the Old Firm defeat. Scott Sinclair has joined Preston and Lewis Morgan is on the brink of a move to Inter Miami, but reinforcements have arrived. £3.5m has been spent on Polish striker Patryk Klimala, while Ivorian midfielder Ismaila Soro is awaiting a work permit. More could follow – Celtic’s squad could be significantly enhanced by the time January ends.
In contrast, Steven Gerrard admits there might be no new faces in his squad when the transfer window closes. The Rangers manager significantly reshaped his team last summer and clearly feels he has hit on a formula that could push them to the league title. It remains to be seen if that thinking is affected by injuries, or one or two departures, in the next week.
Elsewhere, in what has been a slow transfer window for the Scottish Premiership, the most compelling story surrounds Hearts. Daniel Stendel has been in charge barely a month, but his impact has been dramatic. Glenn Whelan and coach Jon Daly have been released, with both criticising the German’s man-management, while Christophe Berra has been stripped of the captaincy and told to find a new club.
The return to fitness of Steven Naismith, John Souttar, Jamie Walker and Conor Washington should help Stendel gain results and build some rapport in the Tynecastle dressing room, but he desperately needs a fresh injection of talent. Stendel will hope Kosovan Donis Avdijaj is the first of a handful of arrivals before next week’s deadline as Hearts try to climb off the bottom of the league.
Of the contenders for Europe, Aberdeen look best placed, having signed midfielder Dylan McGeouch while trying to add Matty Kennedy from St Johnstone before the deadline. Hibernian have re-signed Stephane Omeonga on loan, but Jack Ross needs to cull his squad before adding more players. Third-placed Motherwell signed striker Mikael Ndjoli, but their budget is dwarfed by the clubs chasing them – it would be a magnificent achievement for them to finish where they currently sit.
The clubs in the bottom half of the league, barring Hearts, all exist on similar budgets, and many have been busy. St Mirren signed three players at the start of the month – defenders Akim Famewo and Conor McCarthy and midfielder Jamie McGrath.
Ross County have added defender Coll Donaldson and midfielder Jordan Tillson, Hamilton signed winger Andy Dales, and strikers Nicke Kabamba and Harry Bunn have joined Kilmarnock. Livingston have replaced goalkeeper Matija Sarkic, who has returned to Aston Villa, with Huddersfield’s Ryan Schofield, whilst adding defender Ciaron Brown.
As the month draws to a close the loan market will provide the best opportunity for any desperate clubs to pick up one or two bargains. St Johnstone are the only team yet to make a signing in January, and the lowest scorers in the league would dearly love to add a striker but, as ever, money talks. Sacrificing Kennedy to free up funds may be the answer to Tommy Wright’s conundrum.
The perennial balancing act for teams battling for survival is perhaps more intense this month than in any other. Decisions made in January can ensure top flight status and job security – or start a downward spiral towards relegation.
Then-Hibernian manager Terry Butcher brought in Daniel Boateng, Daniel Haynes and Duncan Watmore during the January window of 2014, but they all flopped as Hibs plummeted down the table, ultimately being relegated after a play-off with Hamilton.
Dundee United have never recovered from Mixu Paatelainen’s ill-fated decision to sign goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima in 2015. The Japan captain was an immensely likeable character off the park, and not solely to blame for his team’s demise, but endured a dreadful time at Tannadice.
Kawashima made an awful error on his debut in the Dundee derby and struggled to cope with the physicality of Scottish football. Another derby defeat four months later sent United down – three managers later, they are still to return to the top flight.
With seven teams between fifth and 11th separated by seven points, the margins in mid-table are as tight as they are between the Old Firm at the top. Nothing is likely to be decided until May – but how every team gets there will be determined by the groundwork laid in the next 10 days.
How to follow the January transfer window with Sky Sports
Sky Sports will bring you the very latest news from the January transfer market with the return of three shows.
How to follow the January transfer window with Sky Sports
Start your day with Good Morning Transfers at 9am as our team of reporters bring you the latest news and insight. Transfer Talk then follows at midday delivering analysis of the biggest stories. Then join us at 7pm for the definitive round-up of the day’s news with The Transfer Show.