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Rangers v Celtic: Key questions for Old Firm derby as Gerrard & Lennon face off

Venue: Ibrox Stadium, Glasgow Date: Saturday, 2 January Time: 12:30 GMT
Coverage: Listen on BBC Radio Scotland and follow live text commentary on the BBC Sport website and app.

The new year begins with a colossal Old Firm derby on Saturday as the top two of Scottish football meet at Ibrox.

Despite their contrasting seasons so far, both Rangers and Celtic are in form and full of motivation for the most combustible fixture on the calendar.

These two could start an argument in an empty room, so their second showdown behind closed doors is unlikely to be a timid affair.

Here, BBC Scotland assesses the key questions for a match packed with intriguing subplots.

Season-defining showdown?

Champions are not crowned in January, but the significance of this latest derby can’t be underplayed. While not quite a title decider, the result will shape the months to come in a historic campaign.

Rangers, having watched their biggest rivals lord it over them with nine successive titles, are now in the ascendancy and will be 19 points clear if they beat Celtic for the third time in a row.

Even with three games in hand – and two further Old Firm contests to play – it would be a yawning gap. And the evidence suggests it would be insurmountable. Rangers are unbeaten in the league, have won 13 consecutive matches, and have dropped just four points from 63 in their best start in almost a century.

Celtic have flitted in and out of crisis and shown new vulnerabilities, but they go to Ibrox on the back of four successive league victories. Simply put, this looks a match they can’t afford to lose in their faltering quest for an unprecedented 10th title in a row.

Can Gerrard win tactical battle again?

If ever Celtic boss Neil Lennon needed to prove he can tactically outmanoeuvre Rangers counterpart Steven Gerrard, it is this weekend.

Celtic – weakened by the absence of six players because of Covid-19 and injury – were outclassed on their own pitch in the previous meeting and failed to register a shot on target in a meek 2-0 defeat.

Rangers’ dominance was stark, but no one-off. They have been the better team in four of the past five derbies – the exception was Celtic’s 2-0 win at Ibrox in September 2019 – as Gerrard’s tactical set-up has sapped Celtic’s strengths.

Gaining a stranglehold of midfield has allowed the Ibrox side to dictate and Celtic’s 3-5-2 formation was badly exposed in October as Rangers ran amok down the flanks in a well-drilled 4-2-3-1.

However, with Celtic having deployed a midfield diamond as part of a 4-4-2 in recent matches – helping strikers Odsonne Edouard and Leigh Griffiths flourish – Lennon will hope he has found a strategy to turn the tables on Gerrard.

Who will get the big selection calls right?

Both managers face pivotal decisions. Rangers forward Ryan Kent – whose blistering early-season form has dipped – was dropped for Wednesday’s win over St Mirren. But with Kent’s fondness for thriving on the Old Firm occasion, can Gerrard afford to keep the 24-year-old on the bench on Saturday?

Alfredo Morelos returned to the starting line-up in Paisley and netted his first goal in nine matches. The Colombian striker has yet to score against Celtic in 13 appearances – and has been below his best this season – yet his physicality and quality has unsettled defences from Porto to the Premiership.

Lennon, meanwhile, must choose whether to restore captain Scott Brown to midfield. Age seems to have caught up with the 35-year-old this season and his replacement, Ismaila Soro, has excelled.

The 22-year-old hadn’t started for Celtic until this month. He has now been selected for five of their past six, and scored his first goal with a belting strike in Wednesday’s victory over Dundee United.

Even though Brown’s leadership and experience have been a staple of Old Firm showdowns, it would be a huge call if Lennon plays him at Soro’s expense.

Elsewhere, the likely absence of Christopher Jullien leaves Lennon with a gap to fill at centre-back. Will Shane Duffy – who has endured an error-strewn loan spell – get the nod ahead of Nir Bitton?

Will Rangers’ defence halt Celtic revival?

Just over a month ago, a few hundred fans stood outside Celtic Park and called for Lennon to be sacked. The 2-0 League Cup loss to Ross County had snapped supporters’ patience amid a run of just two wins in 12 and the manager looked doomed.

Yet, from the depths of despair, the Northern Irishman has pieced together a recovery. Celtic head to Ibrox on the back of six successive wins in all competitions and with no goals conceded in four Premiership games.

Their performances have yet to fully convince – the Scottish Cup final success over Hearts completed the historic quadruple treble but only came after Celtic let slip a two-goal half-time lead.

Lifting that trophy helped keep Lennon in a job, and now comes the acid test. With the manager’s position to be reviewed in the new year, the result against Rangers could determine his future.

To enhance his prospects, Celtic will have to pierce a Rangers defence that is stacking up some startling stats. Gerrard’s men have conceded just five league goals – compared to 13 at the same stage last season – in 21 games and have kept 17 clean sheets.

At Ibrox, they have been virtually impenetrable with just one goal conceded in 10 straight wins. Another shutout would guarantee a point and edge Rangers closer to their first major trophy in a decade.

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