It’s getting to that part of the season when the prizes are handed out and if there was one for understatement, Giovanni van Bronckhorst might well be working on his acceptance speech.
After full time at Hampden on Sunday, the Rangers manager casually mentioned that his team had had “a busy week”. While most of the country enjoyed a long holiday weekend, Van Bronckhorst and his players could look back on an intense schedule that saw them follow last Sunday’s 4-0 win at St Mirren with two epic matches, both going to extra time and delivering wins over Braga and Celtic.
The reward for the hard-fought victories will go a long way to shaping how the club’s season is viewed, with at least a last-four tie in Europe to look forward to, and a Scottish Cup final against Hearts offering a chance of domestic silverware.
In the short gap between Rangers thrilling win over Braga and the resumption of hostilities with Celtic, the main question was about fitness. Could a team already short of a few players through injury really be at their best after the physical and emotional demands of extra time in a European quarter final?
To add to the weight being given to preparation and rest time, Celtic had eight days between their 7-0 thumping of St Johnstone and the Hampden test, allowing Ange Postecoglou and his players the space they needed to be at their best when called for.
It proved to be another one of those occasions where conventional wisdom and the derby are strangers.
Rangers were lively from the off at the national stadium, full of running and intent, testing Celtic’s back line in the early stages and looking more than up for the occasion. If there was any expectation that the team might flag as the game went on, that was dispelled with the response to going a goal behind, when they pushed until Scott Arfield levelled the score.
And if extra-time should have proven too much, that idea was jettisoned when Calvin Bassey, who had played every minute against Braga and then started against Celtic, burst up the left flank on the overlap before delivering the cross for Rangers’ winner. Resilience was not in short supply.
The substitutes were well-timed and effective, the organisation and effort in Van Bronckhorst’s team evident and it was no surprise the manager spoke of his players’ character afterwards.
Ange Postecoglou’s side were left disappointed, having played their part in a dramatic match and just fallen short in a contest decided by fine margins. The team hadn’t quite had the sharpness and slickness of their previous outing but they caused Rangers problems and on another day could have scored a second instead of seeing Cameron Carter-Vickers’ effort come off the bar when they were a goal to the good already.
Postecoglou had no complaints over the result but immediately turned his attention to the league run-in, where a six-point advantage and superior goal difference with five games to go makes Celtic heavy favourites to take the Premiership.
Rangers could yet turn that battle around in remarkable fashion but as things stand it looks like each will have different avenues for success and, in a rare occurrence, both teams could finish up in May with campaigns they look back on happily.
For Van Bronckhorst, the pursuit of the title can’t be given up until mathematically possible, especially with a derby still to be played. But a win over Hearts would bring a major domestic cup for the first time since 2011 and the Europa League run has already been a great source of pride and filled with moments fans won’t forget.
Another step forward in the competition past RB Leipzig to face West Ham or Eintracht Frankfurt in the final would be remarkable achievement and to see James Tavernier lift the trophy would be the stuff of dreams for the Rangers support.
Across the city, adding a league title to the League Cup already in the trophy cabinet would mark the end of a stunning season for Celtic and Postecoglou, given the scale of the rebuild the Australian took on only last summer.
The cup exit stands as a reminder that apart from a purple patch in recent years, the treble is generally been an achievement that has been beyond most managers. To take the title and the European riches that are likely to follow would be something that would put a smile on the face of any Celtic fan but Sunday’s defeat adds to the intensity of the remaining games.
Is it possible for the historic rivals to both have good seasons in the same year? Or does that break the rules of football. Tradition has it that if one is on a high then the other must be at rock bottom.
That’s not to ignore the third party with plenty to motivate them in the final stretch.
Hearts had their own derby joy on Saturday and have now secured group stage football in Europe next season, third place in the league, and a place in the Scottish Cup final at worst.
Robbie Neilson said after his side’s 2-1 win that his team had already had a good season, it was turning into a really good season and had the potential to be a great one.
After the weekend’s action at Hampden his words could also be applied to both Postecoglou and Van Bronckhorst.
With just five weeks of football to go, it shows just how much drama could be left in what’s already been a thrilling season.