Wednesday, October 7, 2009
Old Firm foes must find answers
Amid all the ifs and buts from Sunday's typically fractious Old Firm encounter at Ibrox, the manner of Rangers' victory testified to the continuing ability of Walter Smith to work wonders with a patched-up squad.
In the absence of such luminaries as Madjid Bougherra, Kevin Thomson and Lee McCulloch, and with Smith losing a further two players to injury during the first 40 minutes, the manager could have been forgiven for cursing his bad luck.
But instead, and with traces of the innovation and tactical acumen which have yielded so much success for a distinctly average squad, the hosts dug deep, survived through a mixture of their own fortitude, the foibles of referee, Craig Thomson, and the failings of the Celtic rearguard to emerge with all three points.
It wouldn't do, however, to pretend that everything is suddenly sweetness and light for the reigning SPL champions. Behind closed doors, Smith has made it clear to the board that he can only advance so far with this particular group of players and has delivered the message to the club's new chairman, Alastair Johnston, that he isn't prepared to carry on indefinitely without some serious investment - believed to be in the region of £10 million to £20 million - which will allow Rangers to purchase at least a couple of European-class players.
At the same time, Kris Boyd has told his employers he won't accept a cut in wages, while rumours persist over the future of the likes of Bougherra and Steven Davis, both of whom are understandably attracting attention from the Premier League in England.
Yet, if Rangers have problems, their Old Firm rivals are not swaggering on the sunny side of the street either. Sunday was a glorious opportunity for Celtic not only to amass a significant lead in the championship race, but also to capitalise on their opponents' recent striking deficiencies and turn the psychological screw.
Unfortunately for them, with Stephen McManus and Glenn Loovens indulging in impeccable "After You Claude" routines, Tony Mowbray was left to reflect on how the same glitches keep returning to haunt his team. So too, while there was anguish among Rangers aficionados at the fashion in which their heroes were comprehensively trounced by Sevilla in the Champions League last Wednesday, the subsequent weekend's results - with the Spanish side inflicting on Real Madrid the latter's first defeat of the season - demonstrated that the likes of Adriano, Luis Fabiano and Frederic Kanoute are blessed with sufficient gifts to trouble better sides than either of the Old Firm in their current state.
In short, Europe is a distraction from the main business for both clubs and Smith and Mowbray will be aware that even if they should rally from their present position at the bottom of their respective groups in the Champions and Europa Leagues, neither is equipped to challenge the continent's leading powers.
That might be hard for their supporters to accept, but it is simple economic reality and, nowadays, new money and the Old Firm don't seem to mix. All of which begs the question: which of the two squads has the capacity to transcend their lack of cash and progress towards the SPL crown?
From Celtic's perspective, their Achilles heel is all too clearly discernible. In midfield and up front, they have an abundance of talent, especially if Paddy McCourt steps up to the plate on a consistent basis, and Scott Brown's ongoing surgery in Harley Street proves successful. Yet, whether Mowbray maintains faith in Stephen McManus and Gary Caldwell, or seeks a new defensive combination, none of his available options comes remotely close to resembling Fort Knox.
It was bad enough that they struggled to cope with the Route One approach of Rangers, but worse still that Loovens, a man who will be heading to the World Cup with Holland next summer, should struggle so badly against the likes of David Weir - not exactly a threat to Rudolf Nureyev in the leaping stakes - in the air.
Yes, Danny Fox has proved a shrewd acquisition and Andreas Hinkel has impressed the majority of observers, but Celtic have leaked too many goals this season and when they start spurning home advantage against such modest opposition as Rapid Vienna, one has to wonder how hard they are working on the basics in training.
Rangers, in contrast, have a different source of anxiety. Their followers were understandably elated at Kenny Miller's timely return to form, but with Boyd spluttering along with a cheesed-off countenance and a recurring failure to trouble well-organised defences, Smith has always to depend on hard graft reaping dividends on the SPL trail.
On a positive note, Davis oozes class, Bougherra's forward forays have regularly sparked havoc, and nobody will ever criticise Miller for lack of application of perspiration. However, although they have trimmed Celtic's lead to a solitary point, Rangers have to travel to Perth and Tannadice, as well as entertain Hibs, in their next three matches, which seems a trickier proposition than Celtic's fixture schedule of Motherwell and Kilmarnock at home and Hamilton away.
And, as Mark Hateley used to argue, there is little to be gained from winning an Old Firm scrap if you can't keep the momentum going.
In the final analysis, it boils down to a straightforward rationale that we are dealing here with two pretty ordinary sides, who can no longer compete financially with the Hull Citys and Wigan Athletics of this world. That knowledge doesn't diminish the scale of the frisson and antagonism which rises to the surface whenever the Old Firm square up and heaven help us if that factor was ever removed from the equation. But let's not pretend that Rangers and Celtic are anything other than giants in their own living room.