Rangers vs Celtic: Why Old Firm’s showdown is the moment of truth for Giovanni van Bronckhorst in high-stakes title race

But even with another 18 points to play for, one can’t help but feel that the recent clash with Old Firm marks a pivotal and potentially pivotal phase of the season.

This is of course particularly true for the defending champions Rangers in what is arguably the most important game coach Giovanni van Bronckhorst has faced since replacing Steven Gerrard last November.

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After inheriting a four-point advantage at the top of the table and extending it to six before the turn of the year, van Bronckhorst now sit three points behind Ange Postecoglou’s resurgent Celtic.

Celtic players celebrate after Reo Hatate scored his second goal in the 3-0 win over Rangers at Celtic Park in February. (Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images).

If that gap widens to six with a Celtic win, even the most optimistic Rangers supporter would struggle to come up with an argument for his team to reverse in the remaining six rounds of play.

That’s how consistent Celtic have been since the winter break, with just two points lost in 11 games there’s no sign they’ll slip elsewhere in the run-in.

Even a tie at Ibrox would solidify their favoritism with bookmakers, who already priced them just 2-7 to lift the trophy in May.

Victory therefore seems a must for Rangers, who are also at a significant disadvantage on goal difference where Celtic are currently 14 goals ahead.

Filip Helander heads the only goal of the game for Rangers in the first old firm league game of the season at Ibrox last August. (Photo by Rob Casey / SNS Group)

Rangers can be confident of their home form – they are unbeaten in their last 35 Premiership games at Ibrox, a streak that now goes back over two years since a 1-0 defeat by Hamilton Accies in March 2020.

They have also won their last four ties with Celtic at Ibrox – three in the league and one in the Scottish Cup.

But such was Celtic’s 3-0 win in their last old firm clash, when Rangers were overwhelmed in a one-sided first half at Parkhead, as Postecoglou’s team took the initiative in the title race, it’s van Bronckhorst’s men who did it have more to prove this weekend.

It’s the start of a momentous month for Rangers, which could see them play seven games in 26 days if they make further progress in the Europa League, where they face Braga in the first leg of their quarter-finals game on Thursday night.

Rangers manager Giovanni van Bronckhorst (left) and fellow Celtic Ange Postecoglou (right) both hope to lead the way to victory when their teams meet at Ibrox on Sunday. (Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images)

With a Scottish Cup semi-final against Celtic in Hampden on April 17 included in that schedule, van Bronckhorst has an enticing opportunity to find a landmark win in three competitions.

With the League Cup already won, Postecoglou is aiming for a treble of his own which would mean a remarkable fifth clean win in six seasons for Celtic.

Few would have predicted this scenario for the Australian manager as his rebuild job began with 10 points lost in the first seven games of the season.

A 1-0 defeat on his first visit to Ibrox in August, which saw Filip Helander score the only goal of the competition, was part of that run. It was a day in which Rangers, in the absence of goalkeeper Allan McGregor and captain James Tavernier, showed resilience to secure a win that seemed to confirm their status as firm favorites for the title at the time.

They must again respond to adversity, this time without the services of top scorer Alfredo Morelos, who was sent home from the international game by Colombia with a calf injury.

Though Morelos’ record in old-firm games is hardly famous, with just two goals in his 18 games against Celtic, he brings a dynamism to their game in the attacking third of the field that none of Rangers’ other forwards can match.

Kemar Roofe is the likeliest contender for the central forward role and although the Jamaica international has been a marginal figure in van Bronckhorst’s tenure so far, he showed his skill in the game last season when he scored twice in a 4-1 win at Ibrox in the May.

As always, the fight in midfield will be decisive. It was a contest Celtic won hands down in the dizzying first 45 minutes at Parkhead, where captain Callum McGregor, Matt O’Riley and Reo Hatate scored twice, setting a pace Rangers could not live with.

The introduction of Ryan Jack early in the second half brought Rangers back into balance and the Scotland midfielder will be crucial to their hopes of dictating the pace of Sunday’s competition.

Celtic will try to limit Tavernier’s influence, perhaps with vigorous pressing from tireless Japanese striker Daizen Maeda. The swashbuckling right-back has been Rangers’ leading player this season with 12 goals and 15 assists, posing a threat in both open play and set pieces.

Celtic have the best defensive record in the Premiership with just 18 goals conceded and 17 clean sheets. But 11 of those goals came from set pieces, indicating an area Rangers will hope to exploit.

However, the visitors will seize similar opportunities to capitalize on a Rangers defense that has lost its impression of last season’s impregnability and has kept just five clean sheets in 11 league games since the winter break.

It all adds up to an intriguing prospect that bookies are struggling to share – Rangers are slight favorites due to home field advantage.

Nothing will be settled with certainty on Sunday but the greater pressure is undoubtedly on van Bronckhorst and his team to prevent their rivals from taking a huge step towards reclaiming the Premiership crown.

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https://www.scotsman.com/sport/football/rangers/rangers-v-celtic-why-old-firm-showdown-is-moment-of-truth-for-giovanni-van-bronckhorst-in-high-stakes-title-race-3638411 Rangers vs Celtic: Why Old Firm’s showdown is the moment of truth for Giovanni van Bronckhorst in high-stakes title race

Matthew Hallett

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