Please Wait . . .
Since Steven Gerrard retired from professional football in 2016, he has been considered a Liverpool manager in waiting.
When he took over at Rangers two years after hanging up his boots, his task of stopping Celtic winning 10 consecutive league titles looked difficult – if not impossible. The Hoops appeared years ahead of their city rivals as they flexed their muscles in Europe and boasted a squad with the kind of depth and quality the Gers could only envy.
Sure enough, the Parkhead side would continue to sweep the domestic stage in each of the Liverpool legend’s first two seasons in charge at Ibrox. However, Rangers were steadily growing stronger until a notable shift in the rivalry took place a year ago.
The Gers’ 2-1 win at Celtic Park on December 29, 2019 – their first at the home of their great rivals in nearly a decade – showed that they were once again a force to be reckoned with.
They may not have been able to maintain that momentum into 2020 – a run of three wins from nine matches meant the Hoops were clear at the top of the table when the season was aborted two-thirds of the way through – but Gerrard was able to steel his side over the summer to mount a renewed assault on the Scottish crown while the Parkhead outfit remained steadfastly inert.
"In two-and-a-half years, I think you’ll agree with me that things have changed. The squad has grown, we’ve improved. We’ve had experiences with the journey we’ve been on. We’re in a much better place now," he told the media on Friday.
It is a statement that is hard to dispute.
Rangers’ recovery from the disappointment of 2019-20 has been remarkable, as they have produced the type of relentless form that was previously the hallmark of their neighbours.
They have dropped only four points in their opening 21 matches of the campaign, amassing a positive goal difference of 51 while conceding only five times.
Critics who might suggest the level of opposition is poor can be silenced by Rangers’ European record; seven wins have been amassed from nine matches, including a fine knockout win over Galatasaray. Indeed, Gerrard will feel his side should post a perfect record, having twice lost a two-goal lead against a very handy Benfica side.
Celtic may have three games in hand over them, but the yawning 16-point chasm between the clubs suggests that the league will effectively be over should the East End side lose Saturday's clash between the two sides at Ibrox.
Gerrard has succeeded in making the defending champions look distinctly ordinary. While Celtic’s performances have been mediocre this season, especially in Europe, domestically their results have only been made to look catastrophic through the prism of Rangers’ excellence.
Neil Lennon’s side are, in fact, amassing points at a greater rate than they did in Brendan Rodgers’ final full season in charge. During the 2018-19 campaign, the Hoops claimed 2.33 points per game before the split after 33 fixtures. Lennon’s class of 2021 are posting 2.39.
Rodgers’ outfit, though, were not up against a Rangers team of this unflinching nature. Trailing Motherwell 1-0 at home with little over 15 minutes remaining six days prior to Christmas, a lesser side might have buckled. Gerrard’s men, though, stormed to a 3-1 victory.
Without playing well, they had sent a message across Glasgow that they are a different beast this season. When their total command of the title race just seemed to be slipping an inch, it was immediately restored.
“We found a response and a reaction. This was a big test for us and we've passed it with flying colours. The team did show its bottle,” a satisfied Gerrard purred after the fixture.
Indeed, the relentless manner in which Gerrard’s side are picking up results is reminiscent of Jurgen Klopp’s “mentality monsters” at Anfield.
Few significant doubts still hang over Gerrard. He has shown he has the tactical ability to cope with a variety of opponents and the man-management skills to deal with even the trickiest of characters, like striker Alfredo Morelos.
The one question mark, however, is a significant one: he hasn’t won anything yet.
Rangers got themselves into a position to challenge for the title before stumbling a year ago, and that has been a common theme under the Liverpool legend’s management. When things have really mattered, they have folded.
Last season, there was the 1-0 League Cup final defeat against Celtic, a match in which Rangers were ostensibly the better side but were thwarted by Fraser Forster’s heroics. There was also a 1-0 Scottish Cup quarter-final loss to Hearts, the side who would ultimately be relegated from the Premiership.
"Two seasons without a trophy is a concern," he admitted. "It's not what I'm about."
Those concerns have not been entirely shaken off this term. With Celtic out of the League Cup after a stunning home loss to Ross County, the path was apparently clear to their first silverware of the Gerrard era. Rangers, however, were defeated 3-2 away to a St Mirren side in the lower reaches of the table. It ranks as the team’s only loss this season.
“My only slight concern is they have sh*tit when they’ve got to this stage previously but they seem to have a different mentality this time,” former Rangers and Scotland goalkeeper Stewart Kennedy admitted to the Daily Record .
Gerrard, meanwhile, is bullish over his side’s ability to cope with pressure.
“Since our setback in the Betfred Cup, the players have delivered 12 points out of 12, scored nine goals and conceded one, so our reaction and response has been fantastic. We go into this game confident and in a good place,” he said.