For probably the first time this season, an international break was welcomed by Rangers fans. Four poor results in a row which have left the team 10 points behind Celtic at the top of the league was draining for the support. Three of those four matches were pretty poor performances as well, with only the match away to Hibs one where you could say the team gave a strong showing.
But it’s time to get back to domestic action, and there’s no game I’d prefer to have more than the trip to that lot on Sunday. I see it as a match where we’re underdogs, and I think that suits our squad. Neither side has been playing close to their best of late. If they have anything about them, and sadly they do, they should be really up for coming out and getting in our faces after the way we wound them up at Ibrox last time. We need to be even better than we were in that match to get a result in this one.
With that in mind, this article will look at some of the statistics and numbers for both sides coming into this one to see what they tell us. Are there any easily identifiable weaknesses to exploit? What sort of line ups are expected? And what should we keep an eye out for in terms of approach?
In the last 5 league matches, Celtic have 4 wins and 1 draw. The draw came against Aberdeen and is the only match they’ve dropped points at home so far. They’ve scored 8 goals and conceded 2 in those 5 matches, with late winners against Kilmarnock, Hearts and Dundee. By comparison, Rangers have won 2 and drawn 3 of their last 5 league games. Despite scoring 11 goals and conceding only 2, the three draws have allowed Celtic to extend their lead at the top of the table.
Those draws have been the difference between the teams. Rangers have lost 4 league matches, the same as Celtic, but the way we’ve dropped points so often even from winning positions is something they haven’t been as prone to overall. There’s only one goal between the teams for goals scored, but 6 of a difference in terms of goals conceded. For all the suggestions that the attacking play is where the real difference is, the numbers suggest it may actually be how well the teams defend.
With only 5 goals conceded in 15 home matches, Celtic have a very strong record defensively. They average around 7 shots against them every 90 minutes and win almost 23% of their defensive duels. In the central areas, Boyata (32.56%), Ajer (30.37%) and Brown (27.45%) are very effective.
By comparison, Rangers will have almost 8 shots against them, and win 24% of their defensive duels. They have the best overall percentage of defensive duels won in the league. In Goldson (33.6%), Jack (26.9%), Kamara (29.2%) and Worrall (26.04%), the central areas are also strong.
Of the 16 goals Celtic have conceded this season, only 1 has been a header, and 3 have been from shots outside the box. They defend far better than we often give them credit for, as we look for the errors and remember the mistakes. In Scotland at least, they’re hard to break down.
Celtic average just over 70% possession in their matches. It’s almost 10% more than Rangers have averaged over the season. It’s worth noting, however, that Celtic haven’t had as many games to play with 10 men as we have.
The average of 606 passes per match means Celtic are miles ahead in that regard, but since the introduction of Kamara, Rangers have played far more passes overall. Callum McGregor, Brown, Boyata and Lustig will see a lot of the ball when Celtic are winning possession. Their crosses tend to come from Tierney or Izaguirre on the left, although Toljan has a decent number in his short time as well.
They have a lot of players who get a number of shots on goal. Forrest, Christie, Ntcham, Edouard, Burke, Rogic and Sinclair all have over 2 shots per game on average, with some over 3. For Rangers, Morelos will average 4, but only Grezda, Lafferty, Defoe and Kent have over 2 after that, and 3 of those players are unlikely to start. Statistics tell us that the likes of Sinclair and Forrest get far more touches in the area than Kent and Candeias, and I’m of the opinion that contributes to the difference in results.
INJURIES AND LIKELY SELECTIONS
The press conference today confirmed that Rangers will be without Borna Barisic. In terms of team selection, I can only see one potential change from the team which won on the 29th of December. Glen Kamara has impressed in most of his starts, and could take one of the midfield places. If he does, I believe it will be in place of Ryan Jack rather than Ross McCrorie, who I think will start this game.
For Celtic, they have a number of players returning to fitness. Rogic didn’t train, but is close to being available again. McGregor is back in their squad, as are Benkovic and Lustig. A slight injury for Forrest doesn’t seem likely to have him miss out. Tierney may miss the game, and that will mean either Izaguirre or Hayes playing at left back.
I suspect Celtic will look to go with more experience and a slightly more physical team for this match. I think we’ll see Lustig preferred at right back, Boyata partnered with Benkovic, and either Bitton or Ntcham joining Brown and McGregor in midfield. Scott Sinclair found himself dropped to the bench in these matches under Rodgers lately, and when brought back in at the end of the year you saw why. He may make way for Burke to allow both him and Edouard to play, but I wouldn’t be confident of that prediction.
HOW WILL RANGERS APPROACH THIS?
Even great Rangers squads have found it difficult to go to Parkhead and dominate a game. It may be even more difficult now with the way the atmosphere has changed with so few away fans at these matches. It would be a bit of a surprise if Rangers were to be the better side in terms of possession.
As such, I expect to see the team look to hit Celtic on the break. In their last match against Dundee, Celtic were very open when facing a counter attack. They won’t play in quite the same way, but Rangers are pretty strong on the counter with Kent and Candeias certainly preferring that style. Celtic will look for movement from the likes of Forrest and Sinclair coming off the wing and trying to find spaces between the full backs and centre halves. If Toljan starts, both of their full backs will get forward a lot. That could leave spaces for Rangers to hit when they win the ball, and look to move it quickly. Morelos will be key in terms of his ability to hold the ball up and allow the team to get out. It seems certain that Celtic will start the game at a high tempo, so riding that out to begin with may be the main focus.
Looking at how both teams have been playing of late, and the difference in points in the league, the more rational side of me thinks this has 0-0 written all over it.
The optimistic, biased gut feeling has me believing that Rangers can edge this. We prefer matches where we can find space when teams attack us, and if our front three are playing well we can hurt anyone. That side of me is predicting a 2-1 Rangers win.
Regardless of the result, I’m still of the opinion that the league is beyond us this season. That makes this match more about pride and building belief than anything else. In that respect, our players need to show that the last few games are not indicative of the level they can truly play at.
For anyone at the game, stay safe. I hope the day is enjoyable for all Rangers fans, and we can go into the Hearts match feeling better about our team.
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