Champions-elect Celtic eye Ibrox coronation
Four years without a Scottish Premier League title must feel like an eternity for Celtic supporters. Having beaten their Glasgow rivals Rangers to the domestic championship in six of the eight seasons following the turn of the century under Martin O’Neill and later Gordon Strachan, the Bhoys have had to look on as the team from across town reigned in each of the last three campaigns following Walter Smith's return to the helm.
Smith had previously presided over one of the most successful periods in Rangers history, taking permanent charge in 1991 and leading the Gers to seven consecutive league titles as well as a clean sweep of domestic trophies in 1992/93. That same season, Smith also took Rangers to within one win of the final of the UEFA Champions League in its inaugural year after the European Cup was rebranded.
Following a frustrating spell with English Premier League side Everton and a more successful period as manager of the Scotland national team, Smith returned to Ibrox in 2007. The former defender again established Rangers as the dominant force in both Glasgow and Scotland, winning a treble of back-to-back titles between 2009 and 2011 before handing over the reins to his assistant and ex-player Ally McCoist.
That trend will almost certainly change this season, however, with Celtic currently holding a 21-point lead at the top of the table with just eight fixtures left to play. Not only do Neil Lennon’s side have a chance to secure the trophy ahead of schedule this weekend, but they could put the icing on the cake by achieving that feat at the home of their long-time foes if they beat Rangers at Ibrox tomorrow.
Few could have imagined such a scenario when Rangers led the league by 15 points back in November, but a combination of circumstances has produced a remarkable turnaround which is likely to culminate with the Bhoys’ 43rd championship. Firstly, Celtic strung together a sensational 17-match winning run from November, including a 1-0 home victory over Rangers shortly after Christmas, during which they conceded just four goals.
Administration afflicts Rangers
Secondly, and most importantly, Rangers suffered the disastrous news last month that the club had to go into administration which, among a plethora of related problems, instigated an instant ten-point deduction and ended any slim hopes of catching Celtic at the summit. A difficult period has ensued for the club and manager McCoist, with three players leaving, the rest of the squad and staff taking pay cuts and the team losing three of their last four league encounters.
"Looking back at 140 years of history we've had, it is vitally important to continue to the next 140 years," McCoist, who is experiencing his maiden season as a manager, recently told the club’s website. "I'm really looking forward to the day when this sad chapter in the club's history gets closed and we move on to the next chapter. The best thing for us in the meantime is to look forward, take everybody on board and hopefully get through this."
While things appear to have stabilised since it was announced that the proud club was to be put into administration, with four official bids to take over the organisation received to date, the problems have undoubtedly taken their toll. Midfielders Gregg Wylde and Mervan Celik agreed to leave voluntarily, with the former quickly snapped up by Bolton Wanderers, and Matt McKay joined Korea Republic outfit Busan IPark. More departures are anticipated at the end of the season.
Celtic will not approach the third Old Firm of the season in the greatest spirits either, though, after they unexpectedly lost the Scottish League Cup final to Kilmarnock last Sunday. With a place in the Scottish Cup semi-finals already assured and the league title effectively sealed, the League Cup was expected to be the first leg of a potential treble. However, Dieter van Tornhout’s header shortly before full-time proved enough for Killie to triumph at Hampden Park and ruin Celtic’s hopes of a trio of trophies.
The Bhoys did not enjoy their first visit to Ibrox this season either, conceding a 2-1 half-time advantage as they were eventually beaten 4-2 by the hosts. Although a fourth Old Firm clash and a chance to claim the city’s bragging rights is scheduled this season, and Celtic’s championship victory seems inevitable, all that will be forgotten at kick-off. The old cliché suggests that the formbook goes out of the window when it comes to a derby match, and on this occasion both teams will be hoping that is the case.