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Silent derby can give Celtic or Rangers something to shout about

Celtic and Rangers meet behind closed doors in the first Old Firm match of the season.

Silent derby can give Celtic or Rangers something to shout about SNS Group
Steven Gerrard and Neil Lennon meet again on Saturday but without fans watching on.

The Old Firm match has been called many things over the years but it’s never been known as quiet.

The roiling, deafening sound that greets the teams as they emerge from the tunnel is one of the factors that mark the match as something special.

The incessant noise from kick-off to final whistle has lifted some players to meet the occasion and show their best, while some experienced and cultured figures have seen the intensity, and often the speed, of the match leave them standing.

This time it’s different.

Celtic boss Neil Lennon, who has seen almost everything the fixture can conjure up during his time as player and manager in Glasgow’s east end, summed it all up this week.

“The electricity, atmosphere, rawness, noise, colour – all of that’s going to be missing,” he said.

The sight of empty stands as football feels the impact of coronavirus is nothing new anymore but even after the months of closed-door games at domestic, European and international level, the idea of Scottish football’s biggest match being played in front of subs, staff and media instead of 60,000 fans seems jarring.

The unfamiliar atmosphere shouldn’t detract from the contest though, as the champions and their rivals go toe to toe in the most significant league match of the season so far.

With Celtic in pursuit of a historic tenth consecutive title, and Rangers fixated on a historic “No, you don’t” spoiler and a trophy of their own, any meeting between the sides this season is going to be a chapter of its own in a dramatic story.

That both sides go into the game unbeaten in the league so far just adds to the feeling that both step into the ring as in-form heavyweights.

The countdown to the game has brought the usual speculation about fitness and formations, along with the usual dose of almost surreal sideshow. It’s not every game that has senior politicians calling on broadcasters to make it free-to-air in order to avoid fans descending on Blackpool.

Coronavirus is affecting the on-the-park stories as well, of course. Celtic’s Nir Bitton and Hatem Abd Elhamed miss the game after testing positive for coronavirus, star striker Odsonne Edouard is a doubt as his self-isolation only ended on Friday and Ryan Christie should be sidelined but late pleas have been made to release him from isolation after negative tests throughout the last week. Rangers would like to be counting on new signing Bongani Zungu but have to wait as he quarantines after arriving from France. And that’s only the covid casualties.

Question marks over the readiness of Kemar Roofe and Joe Aribo mean there will be intrigue about selection right up until team sheets are published at 11.30am on Saturday. An hour later, we get to see who shapes the game and handles the occasion best.

Without supporters to give encouragement in the loudest, rawest terms, there will be extra focus on the managers not only on their touchline coaching but on how they prepare the players for the game.

There was only the slightest of hints as to how they might approach it as they fulfilled their pre-match media duties. Lennon, as mentioned, listed what he thought would be missing but was more concerned with the problems from outside that were disrupting his plans.

With a core in his squad that have been on top in this fixture and in domestic competition over the last few years there’s probably benefit in a ‘business as usual’ approach and trusting the players to find their own motivation once again without the crowd.

Across the city, Steven Gerrard made it clear he had sympathy with the fans who wouldn’t be able to attend or watch but he was adamant that his players weren’t focusing on the atmosphere, or lack of it, only on winning the game. Having broken a long streak without victory when his team won at Celtic Park last year, he knows his team have stepped up through the levels since his arrival as manager but won’t be considered a major success until they lift a trophy.

Rangers have strengthened again in the close season and started well but the manager knows that this is the time when title credentials are most thoroughly scrutinised.

One thing that can be predicted in advance that neither Lennon nor Gerrard will claim the result as being of huge significance, win, lose or draw. Lennon made the point this week that last season’s title race didn’t pan out as predicted after the December derby and Gerrard will need no reminding that though his team broke a ten-year drought with their win at Celtic Park, it counted for naught in the grand scheme of things.

Trophies may not be handed out after final whistle on Saturday but it’s an overstatement to say it counts for nothing until the final points total is tallied in May. Victory would be a huge shot in the arm for either side ahead of a testing schedule and games in multiple competitions to come. A defeat for either would be a bruising end to an unbeaten run. A draw could be spun either way with a point more valuable for Rangers because they are on the road, or just fine for Celtic considering their absentees.

Whatever happens, this is one for the history books. A closed-door derby is a new part of the story and it will be fascinating to see if the needle remains without the noise.

On being appointed as Celtic manager for the first time in 2010, Lennon said that he wanted to “bring the thunder back” to Celtic Park. On Saturday he’ll see a silent storm and hope it’s his opposite number who is counting the cost when it all settles down.