CELTIC goal hero John Hartson is backing his old club to reach 56 titles before their Ibrox rivals.
Hoops fans, of course, will argue their city neighbours have lifted just one crown following their liquidation in 2012, but history books still show the Govan club have 55 championships.
And that is the amount Hartson is convinced the Hoops will overtake as he rates them “lightyears” ahead of the Ibrox side.
Ange Postecoglou’s men will clinch their 53rd untainted crown if they beat Hearts at Tynecastle on Sunday – the flag will be heading once more for the east end of Glasgow with four games to spare.
MATCHWINNER…John Hartson beats Rangers keeper Stefan Klos for the points-clincher at Ibrox in 2003.
Hartson, who won three leagues after being signed by Martin O’Neill in the summer of 2001, insisted: “I believe the gap between Celtic and Rangers right now is huge, really huge.
“For me, Rangers are a long, long way behind. I know some people might disagree with that, but that’s just my honest opinion.
“I think it could be lightyears before Rangers get back on top. When I say that I’m talking about a good few years. I just think Celtic are riding the crest of a wave at the moment and have a style and system that works.
“Even the next manager who comes in, whenever that may be in one year, three years or five years, will continue to play the same way.
“The players have just bought into it so well. It’s a system being played right through the club from the Academy to the first-team. And it’s a system that works. Celtic are so strong with their full-backs pushing forward to create an overload in the middle of the park.
FANS’ FAVOURITE…John Hartson celebrates a strike in front of the Celtic supporters at Parkhead.
“They then have a striker who can come short or play in behind.
“There is also a tremendous work-rate within the team with the players so determined to win the ball back whenever they lose it. Ange just has it all in the palm of his hand at the minute.
“Therefore, if Celtic keep going as they are I can see them dominating for a good few years to come, I really can. I just can’t see anything changing.”
Hartson, speaking to The Scotsman, continued: “Rangers are going to move players on with the likes of Morelos and Kent leaving in the summer. But there is no guarantee the ones who come in will be up to standard and can cope with the pressure.
“That pressure will only build now Celtic are winning everything. I actually think Celtic might get to 56 titles before Rangers do. All the talk was about the 55 under Steven Gerrard blah blah blah. But right now, when you look at the finances, too, Celtic are in a great position.
“I was with Martin O’Neill on Monday night when we were having dinner and we were talking about this. There has been a lot of talk about Rangers doing this or Rangers doing that.
“I’ve heard people say: ‘We’ve improved and the gap is getting closer.’
WALLOP…John Hartson crashes a right-foot drive past Rangers’ Stefan Klos for the winner in a 1-0 victory at Parkhead in 2003.
“Well, stop talking and try and beat Celtic first. You’ve got to win games at some stage. Listen, I don’t think Michael Beale has done too badly since he’s gone into Rangers. He has made a real fist of it in all fairness, putting a good run together with a lot of wins.”
Welsh international legend Hartson added: “They’ve been behind in games and been pegged back and have shown some character and spirit to fight back. So, I think he has got something going there.
“But in terms of how far behind he is, he’s got one helluva job on his hands, to get anywhere near what Ange is doing right now.
“He’s reminding me of Martin and the job he did. But back then Rangers were a really good team. They had Ferguson, Arveladze, Lovenkrands, Moore, Numan, Klos and Ricksen.
“They were a very good side and the games were close. I lost in two semi-finals to Rangers. But right now, although they are making a fist of it in some games, Celtic are dominant.
“They have got too much and also that X-Factor player, similar to what we had 20 years ago. If Henrik didn’t score, I would pop up with a goal. If I didn’t score Stan Petrov or Thommo [Alan Thompson] would break through.
“This season Callum McGregor has scored late goals with Jota also playing his part.
HOOP HOOP HOORAY…John Hartson celebrates another Celtic goal.
“So, I think Michael Beale will know he’s got a major job on his hands to turn things around with Celtic in a great place.”
The clubs have met five times this season with Postecoglou’s winning four and drawing the other.
The champions enjoyed a 4-0 romp in the opening clash in September at Parkhead and there was a 2-2 stalemate at Ibrox at the start of January.
The holders overcame Beale’s team 2-1 to retain the League Cup in February and followed that up with a 3-2 Premiership success in the east end of Glasgow last month.
They notched a fourth triumph with their 1-0 success at Hampden at the weekend to book a place in the Scottish Cup Final against Inverness Caley Thistle at the national stadium on Saturday June 3.
The teams meet for a sixth occasion at Ibrox on Saturday May 13.
*John Hartson was speaking at his annual Golf Day. The Hartson Foundation has raised more than £1.2million for various cancer charities.