CELTIC go into today’s derby skirmish in the firm knowledge they will have to earn the victory.
They will not anticipate any breaks from the match officials, on and off the pitch, as they pursue three vital points. The situation has not changed in living memory. It has been ever thus.
You and I will get a clear indication of how the wind is blowing the first time Abdallah Sima falls over. The on-loan Brighton winger must believe he has died and gone to heaven.
ON THE RUN…Alistair Johnston will be a key player in the derby showdown.
Any time he caresses the turf after any sort of challenge – real or imagined – from an opponent, a free-kick almost inevitably follows. Hollywood beckons for this guy.
It’s blatant and boringly repetitive, but it can produce dividends as it allows his team-mates the opportunity to go forward and take up attacking positions at set-plays. Alas, Celtic’s vulnerability to deal consistently with this sort of aerial threat is known to all.
Alistair Johnston will have to make sure his timing in the tackle on Sima is crisp, firm and accurate throughout the afternoon. Or consequences will follow. The Canadian right-back has an important role to play today. Likewise his team-mate Greg Taylor on the opposite flank.
Today’s opponents favour playing down the right where James Tavernier likes to push into space, but they also have the capability of switching quickly to the left where Borna Barisic and Sima have developed a reasonable understanding.
HIGH AND MIGHTY…Daizen Maeda takes to the air to overcome the challenge of Dundee defender Owen Beck.
I doubt if Brendan Rodgers requires any advice from this tired old scribe, but it’s more than obvious both of the opposition’s full-backs are more comfortable going forward.
Wingers running at them and balls over their heads or inside them can create chaos with central defenders tasked with covering for them which also puts the onus on midfielders to get back to help out.
Rodgers has the habit of replacing his wingers around the hour mark, so Daizen Maeda and Luis Palma – if they get the go-ahead, of course – will get the roles to push Tavernier and Barisic into positions where they are not quite so relaxed and then it may be over to Yang Hyun-jun and Mikey Johnston to accept the baton.
The Japanese touchline ace has the electrifying acceleration to terrorise any defence, but he has hardly performed since coming back from injury and Owen Beck, Dundee’s on-loan left-back from Liverpool, had him in his back pocket for the 66 minutes he was on the pitch at Dens Park on Tuesday before the introduction of Yang.
HONDURAN HURRICANE…Luis Palma could be unleashed on the Ibrox rearguard.
Undoubtedly, Maeda has more to offer before he comes off the radar along with Kyogo Furuhashi and a fully-recovered Reo Hatate before they almost certainly get the nod to represent their country in the Asian Cup next month.
I’m a known admirer of Joe Hart’s goalkeeping capabilities, Stephen Welsh and Liam Scales are more than capable of coping with anything thrown at them while Paulo Bernardo produced by far his best display since arriving on loan from Benfica against Dundee.
He looked to get involved right from the kick-off which was heartening to see from a performer I reckoned had been previously satisfied to simply flit around the periphery without getting his sleeves rolled up.
We know what Callum McGregor and Matt O’Riley can also contribute in the engine room and Kyogo, with only one goal in nine games, is surely poised to explode. Today would be the ideal platform for him to take off in the fashion to which we have become accustomed.
So, as I said at the start, Celtic will get no favours today. There have been three UK Prime Ministers – Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak – since a league penalty was awarded against them back in January 2022. Enough said.
BY THE LEFT…Greg Taylor raids on the touchline.
Celtic can pull a flanker, but they will need Maeda bringing his A game to proceedings with Johnston concentrating fully on his challenges on an awkward opponent.
On the left, Palma can produce little flashes of genius that can unlock even the most stubborn of rearguards. Taylor, so often the unsung hero, will be required to put in another unselfish shift.
This is a game in which the champions can slap down their noisy neighbours.
We cannot afford to miss the opportunity.
* DON’T miss the unbeatable match report from Celtic v Rangers at Parkhead this afternoon – only in your champion CQN.