Rangers have closed the gap to Celtic and have eyes on next year’s title
Performances have improved under interim boss Graeme Murty and the blue half of Glasgow now have a squad capable of challenging Old Firm rivals.
Last May, Glasgow Celtic won their sixth Scottish Premiership title in succession in historic fashion, as they completed the domestic season unbeaten.
Their margin over runners-up Aberdeen stood at a mammoth 30 points, with city rivals Rangers a further nine points back. It was the Gers first season back in the top flight after a four-year absence but few expected them to fall a full 39 points short of a league title.
This time around, Brendan Rodgers’s side look set to make it seven league titles in a row yet the situation at the top has changed significantly.
Even if Celtic win their remaining 10 league matches and Rangers – now with interim boss Graeme Murty in the dugout – lose all of their remaining nine outings, the gap would only stretch to 36.
There are two more Old Firm matches scheduled for this season and it is not inconceivable that Rangers could win their league game against their fierce rivals for the first time in six years.
Many of their fans are convinced they should have triumphed in the scoreless draw back in December, when Murty’s troops enjoyed the better of the chances at Celtic Park.
The former Reading fullback assumed the role at the Gers in October following the dismissal of Pedro Caixinha – his second stint in the hot-seat after temporarily overseeing first-team duties before the Portuguese boss replaced Mark Warburton the previous season.
The Glasgow giants had initially pursued a deal for Aberdeen boss Derek McInnes but he ruled out the move by December and Murty would maintain his role until the end of the campaign.
Of the 21 matches since Caixinha’s dismissal, Rangers have won 15 including eight of their last nine – a run which has propelled them above Aberdeen and has made Celtic fans look somewhat anxiously over their shoulder, if not yet in a state of panic.
The January additions of Russell Martin, Sean Goss, Jamie Murphy, Greg Docherty and Jason Cummings have all bolstered a squad which contained individual talent and promise but which is also unbalanced.
Last summer, Caixinha brought in six players from outside the UK with mixed success – Colombian striker Alfredo Morelos and Portuguese midfielder Daniel Candeias have both starred but Eduardo Herrera has had little impact while fellow Mexican striker Carlos Pena has already departed on loan. Dalcio, a loanee from Benfica, has played only one league game.
Many of Warburton’s signings remain, yet his and Caixinha’s approach was notable by their contrast. Once more, Murty has helped to a head a renewed vision.
A new Premiership
So far this new approach is working – Rangers are now the league’s top scorers and their recent five-game winning run has included 19 goals.
By contrast, they have conceded 14 more goals than Celtic and five more than fifth-placed Hearts. Their recent 5-3 win at Hamilton summed up the current team – lots of potential, excitement and talent but also a side who have a soft underbelly and who remain unbalanced.
Yet the improvement in the past 12 months is tangible and the renewed sense of optimism in the club’s fan base is palpable.
This is undoubtedly a stronger, more competitive Scottish top flight than last year’s edition. The promotion of Hibs has bolstered the league, with the capital club sitting fourth, while Aberdeen continue to establish their top-three promotion.
Hearts and Kilmarnock are both on the right track and both have record league victories over the champions this season, while St. Johnstone have won at Ibrox and recently held Celtic to a scoreless draw at Parkhead.
End of an era?
Last season, Celtic dropped only eight points all season yet already have ceded 20 this time around and the expectation is they will drop more in the final stretch.
In 2016/17, Rodgers’s team averaged more than three league goals per game but this time around their current rate is exactly two per game.
This combination of Celtic’s drop in standards domestically and the notable improvement of Rangers has added an interest level to the Scottish game.
The Ibrox club now must find stability and a clear sense of direction to mount a genuine title challenge. To do so, they should stick with their current boss.
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