London (AFP) – Steven Gerrard’s bold move to make his first foray into management in the Glasgow goldfish bowl at Rangers was rewarded with a first league win over Celtic since 2012 last month to finally put the Scottish champions under pressure in a title race.
Going for an eighth consecutive title, Celtic maintain a slender advantage with a game in hand and a marginally better goal difference than their fierce rivals with both sides locked on 42 points at the top of the table.
Yet, for once it is not just the traditional Glasgow giants with eyes on the title with the top four also including Kilmarnock and Aberdeen separated by just three points.
However, as Scottish Premiership action returns on Wednesday after a three-and-a-half week winter break, it is Celtic and Rangers who have flexed their financial muscle.
Gerrard has tried to compensate for Celtic’s greater experience of winning trophies in recent seasons with the loan singings of former England team-mate Jermain Defoe and Steven Davis, who won three titles in a previous four-and-a-half year spell at Ibrox between 2008 and 2012.
Neither Defoe 36, nor Davis, 34, had enjoyed many minutes with parent clubs Bournemouth and Southampton respectively this season but Gerrard believes they still have the quality to end Celtic’s dominance of the Scottish game.
“They have got unbelievable quality on the football pitch,” said the former Liverpool captain. “We knew that was not going to be a worry for us and that they are two good people and two good professionals.”
Davis was part of the last Rangers team to win the league in 2011, but was one of a host of players to leave when the club went into liquidation and demoted to the fourth-tier a year later.
Since then Celtic have gone largely unchallenged for the title, particularly since bringing Gerrard’s former Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers north in 2016.
Defeat at Ibrox in December was Rodgers’s first in 13 meetings with Rangers and the Northern Irishman has won all seven domestic trophies on offer since coming to Scotland.
Celtic recovered from a slow start to the season with Rodgers unhappy at a lack of activity in the summer transfer market which contributed to his side crashing out in the Champions League qualifiers.
But an error-strewn performance from which Celtic were lucky to escape with just a 1-0 defeat at Ibrox in their last league outing has at least encouraged the board to hand Rodgers some funds.
While Rangers have gone for old heads, Celtic have continued their transfer policy in recent years of putting faith in youth.
USA international Timothy Weah, son of Ballon d’Or winner George Weah has signed on a six-month loan deal from Paris Saint-Germain, as has West Brom winger Oliver Burke.
Another striking option in Ivorian Vakoun Issouf Bayo has been signed on a permanent deal from Slovak side Dunajska Streda with Rodgers claiming he needed the three new attacking arrivals to compensate for the loss of Moussa Dembele to Lyon for a club record fee in the final days of the August window.
Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes was criticised in the winter break for his assertion that “Celtic are the most likely to stretch away” from the pack, but there is at least now pressure on Rodgers’s men to perform.
“If we get to March and April and there’s still congestion at the top, then you could say with certainty that there is a title race on then,” added McInnes, whose side have finished as runners-up for the past four years.
Gerrard’s first objective was just to make Rangers the second force in Scottish football once more.
Should he go one further in his first season to stop Celtic’s march towards a historic 10 titles in a row, it will go some way to compensating for the pain of never winning a league title as a player during a legendary career at Liverpool.
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