Going For Victory Five

So here we are, the final game of 2018.

Between the second half of last season and the first half of this season we’ve somehow managed to play no fewer than sixty nine games up to this point.

We’ve won the league title for a seventh consecutive time, we’ve won the Scottish Cup to complete an unprecedented Scottish domestic double treble, we’ve failed to reach the Champions League group stages for a third consecutive time but we did get to the Europa League group stages and qualified for the last thirty two, and we’ve won the League Cup for the third year in a row – meaning that Brendan Rodgers has picked up all seven of the domestic trophies in his time at Celtic, matching the Scottish record.

Eight in a row is still very much on too, both in consecutive domestic trophies and in league titles, as we currently sit three points clear at the top of the Scottish Premiership with a game in hand over everyone except St Johnstone – whom we play at Celtic Park in January to catch up.

But today we have a chance to extend that even further, as we look to go to Ibrox and win for a fifth consecutive time.

Rangers are in their third season as a top flight team, and although they’ve managed to pick up a draw at Celtic Park in each of the previous two seasons, their home form against us hasn’t been nearly as good.

Our first visit there on Hogmanay in 2016 saw Celtic come from behind to win 2-1, while the game later that season was a far more convincing 5-1 thrashing – the second time we had beaten them by that scoreline that season. Last season’s first visit was a 2-0 win for Celtic, but the second visit to Ibrox was a far trickier affair. Twice Celtic had to come from behind to level the game, and when we were reduced to ten men you wouldn’t really have thought that it would be us that would get the winner. But that’s exactly what happened as the ten men of Celtic won 3-2.

One interesting fact about this is that while this is our fifth trip there to face, it will be a fourth different manager in charge! Mark Warburton was in charge for the Hogmanay game, while Pedro Caixinha was in charge for the 5-1 and 2-0 games. Graeme Murty was in interim charge for the 3-2 win, and now it’s Steven Gerrard’s side that we’ll look to beat.

Gerrard’s first game against Celtic was a very one-sided affair, with a 1-0 scoreline in Celtic’s favour very flattering for a Rangers side whose best player by far was goalkeeper Allan McGregor. Second best for Rangers that day was probably the woodwork, since Celtic hit that no fewer than four times.

That 1-0 win was Gerrard’s first defeat in charge at Ibrox, but there have been further defeats away to Livingston, Spartak Moscow and Rapid Vienna, as well as back-to-back defeats to Aberdeen in Glasgow. The first of those came in the League Cup semi final to set up our meeting with the Dons in the final at the start of this month, while the latter was Rangers only defeat at Ibrox so far this season just a few days after we lifted that League Cup.

Hopefully Rangers second defeat at Ibrox, just like their first, comes just a few days after us beating Aberdeen!

Wednesday’s game at Pittodrie had everything. Scott Sinclair’s early goal was a great start, but Emilio Izaguirre’s attempted block of the Niall McGinn cross led to a penalty you rarely see given in Scottish football. Most referees will let a challenge go if a player has managed to get the cross or shot away, just look at what happened to Kieran Tierney at Murrayfield when Willie Collum let that one go, but this time Izzy was punished and Aberdeen levelled from the spot.

McGinn was later lucky to escape a red card for having a two footed studs up over the ball challenge, and no one is going to convince me that Willie Collum was switched on enough to give McGinn the benefit of the doubt because he slipped!

Yes, it was the same referee on Wednesday as it was at Murrayfield. Once more our referees prove that, far from being consistent with each other, they can’t even be consistent with themselves.

We then had Aberdeen defending deep with us not having much quality to break them down until the introduction of Odsonne Edouard. His perfectly weighted pass let James Forrest get in behind and find Sinclair for his second goal. Just when you thought that might be it, Graeme Shinnie used his springboard to execute a triple pike and landed with very little splash to score the perfect 6.0 from all the judges, except Willie Collum who instead gave the penalty which Aberdeen duly scored again.

But Edouard wasn’t done. He scored another, reacting quickest to a mix up in the Aberdeen defence to very cleverly dink the ball past Joe Lewis, and then he quickly assisted with a fourth by completely ignoring a Shay Logan challenge and his shirt being pulled by another defender to give Sinclair his hat trick. Even then there was still time for Aberdeen to pull another goal back from a corner before an attempted last second overhead kick ended up on the beach.

There have been some real Boxing Day or St Stephen’s Day classics over the years and this one will probably be remembered up there with the best of them now. But the important thing was to get the win in a season where our away form hasn’t been that great. It became especially important when it turned out Hibernian were to get a point from Ibrox and ensure the gap ahead of today’s game is three points rather than one.

Those results mean that technically we could lose today and still be top of the league going into the winter break if it’s only a narrow defeat, but let’s not think too much about that! We wouldn’t want to give them any encouragement or have to listen to how they are coming all through the break.

Rangers will definitely be thinking about it though. They’ve never beaten us in ninety minutes, their only victory over us came in a penalty shootout at Hampden in the Scottish Cup semi final in 2016.

They’ll be thinking about how they twice led the game at Ibrox last time, and perhaps they’ll be thinking that they should have at least got a draw in it had Alfredo Morelos not missed a sitter.

He might be the top goalscorer in the Premiership, but he’s yet to score against Celtic, a scoring record that might compare him with Kris Boyd – although even he managed one goal against us at Ibrox.

For all the signings and the debt they are continuing to go into in an ever desperate attempt to stop us, the two players keeping Rangers near the top of the league are the Caixinha signings of Morelos and Daniel Candeias. Keep those two out of today’s game and we’ll very probably keep Rangers from troubling us.

Gerrard can’t even get credit for the other signing that is making the difference this season. Allan McGregor’s return to Ibrox was in place before he was!

Win today and we could knock Rangers back down to third place if Kilmarnock win at home to St Mirren, or at the very least we’ll be six points ahead of second spot with a game in hand. That would be a great position to be in for the second half of the season, one that hopefully we’ll go into stronger than we are now.

It’s been a long month with so many games to play and quite a few issues throughout the squad to deal with. But despite that, we go into today’s game in a relatively strong position. We should hopefully have our first choice back four available, though Kieran Tierney is still a real doubt.

There’s no Tom Rogic in midfield, but there’s certainly enough strength in depth there with Scott Brown, Olivier Ntcham, Callum McGregor and Ryan Christie all available. James Forrest has been quiet of late, but a confident Scott Sinclair coming off the back of a hat trick can only be good for us. And of course the brilliance of Edouard was obvious for all to see at Pittodrie. Hopefully he can thrive once more at Ibrox just as he did when he got that winner in the 3-2 game last season.

One last game of the year. Let’s make it a great one.

Krys (Twitter @krys1888)

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