It’s the first Glasgow derby of the season on Sunday, as Steven Gerrard takes his unbeaten Rangers side to face Celtic at Parkhead.
Ahead of the weekend’s clash, we caught up exclusively with former Rangers man Alex Rae, to get his thoughts on the latest Old Firm game.
Here’s Alex’s take on everything from Gerrard’s summer signings to the Gers’ title hopes and his own experience of facing Celtic in the famous light blue…
Ladbrokes News: Rangers are unbeaten so far in 11 games across all comps so far this season. What’s impressed you most about the job Steven Gerrard’s done so far?
Alex Rae: The first thing is how well everyone’s gelled together. A ton of players have arrived over the past couple of months since Steven has taken over.
Going undefeated in 11 games is a real achievement. But I also think there’ll be a few games in there that he’ll feel Rangers should’ve won. Obviously, they conceded with the last kick at Aberdeen, and then very late on at Motherwell last weekend.
But overall, I think he’ll be really satisfied with the contribution players throughout the squad have made – and the fact they’ve hit the ground running.
They could maybe still strengthen, especially if they go through in the Europa League on Thursday night [against FC Ufa]. That could well fund a few more deals, just to help them compete on all front.
LN: Alfredo Morelos is in sparkling form, with five goals in his last five outings. Do you think the Celtic defence can contain him, or is he too hot to handle right now?
AR: Morelos has really impressed me since he came back from the summer break. I think Steven is getting a better tune out of him than either manager did last season.
As well as getting five in five, his general all-round play has improved. One of the key things about the guy now is that he consistently gets into the right positions.
I think he can absolutely be a thorn in Celtic’s side this weekend.
LN: Rangers were on the receiving end of a few heavy losses in this fixture last season. Do you think that’ll weigh on them, or will it act as extra motivation to get their own back?
Over the last couple of years, Celtic have had it far too easy in this fixture. But I look at this Rangers team, and I see a massively improved level of player.
They’re a lot stronger physically than they were last season, and also have players with the pace to hurt Celtic. And in guys like Morelos and Kyle Lafferty, you’ve got guys who can finish those crucial chances off.
Defensively, Rangers have looked better with four in defence than the 3-5-2 system they went with at Motherwell. So I’m expecting they’ll revert to a back four on Sunday.
LN: There have been a lot of new faces arriving at Ibrox this summer. Gerrard has brought in 12 players during the window. Which of those signings have you been most impressed with so far?
AR: I think Allan McGregor coming back might be the most important signing this summer at Ibrox. He’s so experienced, and gives Rangers a platform to build from.
Connor Goldson has done very well since arriving from Brighton. And I’ve been impressed by Nikola Katic in defence.
There’s also pace on the wings with guys like Ryan Kent, and some steel with boys like Lassana Coulibaly. So there’s been improvements in a lot of major areas.
LN: Obviously we’re early in the season right now, but Rangers have looked very good in Europe and domestically. If they take something at Celtic Park on Sunday, do you think we can say they’re real title contenders?
AR: If they’re going to really challenge this season, there are two key areas. One is being competitive with Celtic in head-to-head games, and the other is improving their record at Ibrox – which was disappointing last season.
The Motherwell game wasn’t great, with Rangers conceding three goals [in a 3-3 draw at Fir Park. But at home, they’ve conceded just one in five this season – winning most of those.
Provided they keep the defence solid and the strikers remain on form, there’s every chance Rangers will give the strongest challenge to Celtic that we’ve seen in years.
LN: We’ve touched on the squad at Ibrox. As for Celtic, who do you think are their biggest threats on the park – and conversely, what do you see as their Achilles Heel?
AR: I think Celtic have had a few issues defensively this season, and Brendan Rodgers has maybe found it difficult to nail down what his best partnership is.
Coming forward, they’ve obviously got a lot of quality. But it’s not quite clicking like it has in the previous couple of seasons. Leigh Griffiths and Moussa Dembele are obviously top players, but they’re not hitting the heights right now.
However, I know that Parkhead is a really tough place to go. Especially on the back of that arduous European trip Rangers have in midweek. But I still see this being close.
LN: You played in the Rangers side which beat Celtic 3-1 at Ibrox in August 2005. What are your own memories of the atmosphere and experience of playing in a winning Old Firm game?
AR: As a local lad, it was incredible. But even talking to the European players at Rangers – Dutch guys, French players – they all said that playing in an Old Firm game is one of the best experiences of their career.
One of the reasons you become a professional footballer is to compete at that level, and to experience the intensity and rivalry of a Rangers v Celtic.
As a player in those games, it’s hard not to be taken in by the intensity – because you know just how much it means to both sets of fans. You try to embrace the nerves and make an impact.
LN: A draw at FC Ufa on Thursday night a would confirm a place in the Europa League group stages for Rangers. How far can you see them realistically going in this competition?
AR: The focus just has to be on progressing on Thursday. If they do get there – the Europa League is rather a mixed bag, but there’s a lot of clubs with money floating about in it.
I think financially it’d be a huge boon for Rangers, as well as being great for the fans to see some really big European nights.
In terms of how far they can get – again, it depends on the draw. But if Steven can lead them to the group stage, it’s a big achievement on its own merits.
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