Celtic v Rangers: State of play, key men & manager focus for second derby of season

With the new year beckoning, the Old Firm collide this weekend in a high-stakes derby showdown. Celtic are guaranteed to begin 2024 in top spot, but resurgent Rangers are closing in and have serious designs on unseating the champions. Throw in a partisan crowd comprising only home fans at Celtic Park, plus a Rangers manager sampling the derby for the first time, and another absorbing contest between the Glasgow giants awaits.

The state of play

Celtic are setting the pace in their pursuit of a third successive league title and 12th in 13 years. However, their hegemony has shown signs of fraying and their advantage has been whittled down to five points over a Rangers side who have played two games fewer. Having gone undefeated in the opening 16 league matches, Celtic careered into troubled waters with some stodgy performances preceding successive defeats by Kilmarnock and Hearts this month. Not since 2013 had the club gone pointless in back-to-back outings. A lockout of the Green Brigade fans group and supporter discontent with the board added to the unrest.

Calm has somewhat been restored by successive wins over Livingston and Dundee – and a Green Brigade truce – but now comes the big one that will set the mood at the club as the winter break looms. While Celtic have spluttered, Rangers have motored since Philippe Clement took charge. The visitors head to Celtic Park on a 17-game unbeaten run in all competitions and with the first silverware of the season, the Viaplay Cup, safely tucked away in the trophy cabinet. Progress to the Europa League last 16 has also been secured after Rangers topped their group thanks to an astounding win at Real Betis.

That triumph in Spain against the odds will infuse Rangers with belief for another formidable away task as they look to triumph at Celtic Park for the first time since October 2020. Trips to Glasgow’s east end have proved hazardous for Rangers in recent years, yielding just two wins in the past 17 attempts. Shorn of supporters, should they emerge with three points on Saturday it would mark a serious statement of intent.

Players to watch – Kyogo Furuhashi (Celtic) & Todd Cantwell (Rangers)

No player has had a bigger impact on this fixture in the past 12 months than Celtic’s Kyogo Furuhashi. The Japan striker has proved to be the scourge of Rangers, netting six goals in seven derby starts. When Celtic silenced Ibrox in September, it was Kyogo who provided the decisive blow with a wonderful 25-yard volley. Since then, however, Celtic’s talisman has not been at the peak of his powers. Kyogo has netted just twice in the past 14 games and his assuredness in front of goal has wavered.

Injuries have hampered the service from wide areas, but Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic system – with Kyogo dropping deeper than he was accustomed to under Ange Postecogloou – arguably does not play to his strengths. Celtic fans will hope the derby occasion helps their star man rediscover his mojo. Rangers’ Todd Cantwell, meanwhile, has been in Glasgow less than a year but has had to swallow plenty of derby dejection. Cantwell has faced Celtic five times, losing four. In the sole victory, he opened the scoring as Rangers swept their rivals aside 3-0 in May last season, although it was ultimately irrelevant as Celtic had already been crowned champions. This time it’s all to play for and Cantwell – a key player in a Rangers midfield shredded by injuries – could be a key man for the visitors.

While he can lack consistency – and was substituted before half-time in last month’s draw with Aris Limassol – the 25-year-old has the nimble feet and ability to turn a game. Whatever happens, Cantwell is guaranteed a pantomime villain role from the home support – can he revel in it?

Managers in spotlight

One is sampling the fixture for the first time, the other is well versed in it. Clement heads to Celtic Park still unbeaten after 16 games at the helm and having pocketed 28 league points out of 30. The experienced Belgian manager stressed he was “not a magician” when appointed in October, but he’s done a nifty job of conjuring a coherent team from the parts the sacked Michael Beale left behind. Even some players who looked lost have been revived, with Cyriel Dessers a case in point as he channelled his inner Pele by weaving through the Betis defence to score a wonder goal.

Since Clement’s arrival, Celtic have played two games more than Rangers but collected two fewer points. However, Rodgers, who has urged his players to block out the “noise” in the build-up, does not lack experience of prevailing against Rangers to lean upon. He has overseen 14 Old Firm games across two spells, winning 11 and losing just one. He has one victory from one since returning in the summer. The tactical battle between Rodgers and Clement will be a fascinating subplot amid the bedlam.

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