Celtic's Brendan Rodgers declares Rangers 'title contenders' as the build-up to Old Firm derby begins
As Celtic moved five points ahead of Rangers prior to the first Old Firm derby of the season at Ibrox, Brendan Rodgers branded next Saturday’s game a contest between title contenders, despite the gap that has already opened between the pair in the table. Rangers had to come from behind to earn a point in the 2-2 draw with Partick Thistle at Firhill on Friday and could not prevail despite playing against 10 men for the final quarter of the proceedings. Indeed, Pedro Caixinha’s players will go into their collision with the champions in third place after Saturday's results in the Scottish Premiership. Nevertheless, the Hoops manager cited the difference in summer transfer fees – Rangers’ outlay was an estimated £8 million, compared with Celtic’s £5.5 million, although the figures are arguable – as evidence that the Ibrox board were aiming to prise the Scottish title from the other side of Glasgow. "I’ve seen a little bit of Rangers,” Rodgers said. “Pedro obviously came in during the season and was able to assess and look at different methods in which they can try to work and play. Humbled: Neymar and company gave Celtic a harsh lesson midweek Credit: AFP “They have clearly spent money in the summer. They spent more money than us – and we are a Champions League club - so that tells you that their idea is to win the league. It’s not to finish third. Not to finish second above Aberdeen. It’s to win the league. “They have come into the season with that mentality. They have signed some good players and are playing a basic shape in terms of 4-4-2, nothing complicated, get the ball wide, crosses in the box. I’m sure they will be reasonably happy with how they have started.” Celtic’s 5-1 victory at Ibrox was widely viewed as a tactical blunder by Caixinha, who chose to deploy Rangers with a midfield diamond, through which the champions romped to establish a record victory on the ground of their arch-foes. Rodgers, though, declared that the Rangers line-up had not been novel in the circumstances, despite Caixinha’s adoption of 4-4-2 this season. Keep smiling: Pedro Caixinha arrives for the Scottish Premiership match at The Energy Check Stadium at Firhill Credit: PA “A lot of the European coaches will have different ways. I’m not sure 4-4-2 is what Pedro would purely like to play,” he said. “I think he is looking at what he’s got and how he can maximise what he gets from the players. “They played with a diamond, looking to have numbers in midfield and two front players. It’s flatter now in terms of how they are playing it, but their intention, I’m sure, is to win the league and what they have spent is a mark of that.” The Celtic boss, however, acknowledged that – having beaten Rangers in the William Hill Scottish Cup semi-final a week previously, the 5-1 rout had capped a deeply satisfying passage. “It was great week,” he said. “We went into the semi-final and were outstanding – our performance level in every facet was very good. At Ibrox the feeling was that we would be under severe pressure from their play and the crowd and there was no way we could go and play like we did in the semi. “For the players to go out and handle that side of it and perform like they did and actually be disappointed we only scored five made the performance outstanding.” April, the cruellest month: Celtic won 5-1 on their last visit to Ibrox Credit: Reuters So dominant were Celtic last time out at Ibrox that the home support began to make for the exits midway through the second half. “For every manager and player, it is feeling that you are working well. You are doing your job if the game is over by 65, 70 minutes,” Rodgers said. “In a 90-minute game you can take huge credit for how you are playing at that stage. If you are going to Ibrox and doing that against one of the great rivals and performing at that level, which was key for me, it was pretty special.” Celtic, of course, conceded five goals in their midweek Champions League group stage opener at home to Paris Saint-Germain but normal service was resumed with the visit of Ross County, who found themselves behind to a Tom Rogic strike after 13 minutes. The Staggies fell further behind five minutes before the break when Moussa Dembele, on his first appearance this season, placed a low right foot drive into the far corner of the net. The restart brought no relief for County as Celtic hit them on the counter from a memorable double save by Craig Gordon from Craig Curran and Alex Schalk. James Forrest netted on the rebound from a Rogic effort and scored Celtic’s fourth and his second after Oddsone Edouard’s prompt. Elsewhere, Aberdeen were held 1-1 at home to Kilmarnock, Hearts’ first victory under Craig Levein was a 2-1 win at Hamilton, while Hibs drew 2-2 with Motherwell at Easter Road and Dundee were 3-2 winners against Tayside neighbours, St Johnstone.