Pedro Caixinha likened Rangers to a wounded animal this week. He meant the simile to be a signal of defiance after his players were dismissed from the William Hill Scottish Cup by Celtic last Sunday, but his choice of imagery suggests a less palatable conclusion for the Ibrox faithful.
As matters stand, Rangers are more like the subject of the celebrated ‘Have You Seen’ poster which appealed for sightings of a dog ‘with three legs, blind in left eye, missing right ear, broken tail, recently castrated – answers to name of Lucky’. In five meetings with Celtic this season, Rangers have been dumped from both knockout tournaments and have conceded 11 goals while scoring only three.
Celtic’s goal difference is close to five times greater and, if the champions win again on the other side of Glasgow, the gulf between the sides will be 36 points. Another intriguing factor is that neither Mark Warburton nor Pedro Caixinha have been able to inflict damage on Celtic, but Graeme Murty – who acted as caretaker during the interregnum between the two managers – plundered Rangers’ single point from these meetings, in the 1-1 draw at Parkhead.
Murty’s achievement came from keeping Rangers’ midfield and defensive ranks in touch with each other, while covering Celtic’s full- backs at goal kicks and narrowing the angles for Dedryck Boyata’s clearances. In contrast, Caixinha’s players rarely got sufficiently tight on their opponents to disrupt their rhythm last Sunday.
Brendan Rodgers, the Celtic manager, even presented Caixinha with some tactical advice this week, namely that if Rangers sit deep and wait for gaps – as they did in their 3-0 win at Aberdeen – it is liable to be a more productive strategy. For Martyn Waghorn, meanwhile, there is also the factor of a partisan home crowd.
“They are coming to Ibrox, to our place, so it’s important we stamp our authority on the game,” said the Rangers forward. “We’ve got to take the game to them. It’s going to be some atmosphere in front of our fans and we have to embrace that. We’ve got to use it in the right way.
“We have worked all this week to use the negatives and positives to build. It’s the last Old Firm game of the season and an opportunity for us to get the right result. We are very hungry and keen to do so.
“It’s going to have the same pressures on it and we know we have to do the right things from the first kick-off. Regardless of who we are playing, we need the three points. We got six points from the previous two league games [against Aberdeen and Partick Thistle] and it’s important for us to set targets.
“There is an extra incentive when it’s an Old Firm game. Three points against them would be an added bonus.”
Rodgers, of course, had an observation about the venue. “It is their home game and they will look to maybe press the game a little bit more but, if they do, then it can be even better for us,” he said.
“It will open up the space behind the pressing line – a big space – and we have got speed in our team, but we will prepare as we normally do for a tough game. We played very, very well on Sunday.
“The only disappointment was the scoreline didn’t really reflect the dominance of the game. We will respect the opponent which we always do but really look to impose our style on our game as we have done all season.”
The gap in performance and tactical execution last Sunday was so marked that it prompted many Rangers supporters to declare feelings of gloom, to say the least, about the prospects of closing the gap, or gulf, with Celtic. Waghorn, though, did not feel that the outcome at Hampden should be construed as apocalyptic.
“I wouldn’t say we are years off them, no. Hopefully with a new manager, changes in the summer that are probably going to happen, it will be another six months or so down the line we should be challenging,” he said.
“Listen, we are Rangers, you can’t have years when you aren’t in the top flight. Hopefully we will be in Europe and we need to be competing on all fronts.
“We have created chances and it is important that we are bit more ruthless, both for myself and other players. It is important in these big games when you only get one or two chances and that could be the difference going forward.”
As for team news, Celtic will be without Moussa Dembélé, whose season has been ended by hamstring injury. Rangers must do without the suspended James Tavernier for an occasion in which another comprehensive defeat will have their fans baying – though not for Lucky’s sake.