Rangers at risk of derby doom
During his time with IMG, the new Rangers chairman, Alastair Johnston, regularly rubbed shoulders with some of the biggest names in international sport including Tiger Woods, Roger Federer and Thierry Henry. Yet reality has set in with a vengeance at Ibrox as Johnston becomes accustomed to satisfying the demands of supporters, who are growing increasingly concerned at the threadbare state of their struggling squad.
Their frustration is understandable. Not only have Rangers failed to score in their last three SPL matches, but they were outclassed by Sevilla on Tuesday night and even the controversy over the failure of referee, Jonas Eriksson, to award a stonewall penalty against the Spanish side, could not disguise the sweeping sense of disillusionment and early rush towards the exits by fans, many of who had vacated the stadium by the time that Nacho Novo grabbed a late goal, which offered precious little consolation.
In which light, this weekend's resumption of Old Firm hostilities is arriving amidst a backdrop of uncertainty at Ibrox, whereas Celtic, who already boast a four-point advantage in the championship race, are in the enviable position of squeezing out wins without being anywhere near their best.
It speaks volumes for the contrasting fortunes of the Glasgow giants that Walter Smith was left clutching at straws following last Saturday's drab draw with Aberdeen, and the manager has made it clear that he has no intention of continuing in the job indefinitely, armed with only sticking plasters and no prospect of future investment.
By comparison, Tony Mowbray was able to berate his players, in the aftermath of a relatively comfortable 2-0 success over St Mirren, bolstered by the knowledge that the momentum lies with Celtic in the SPL stakes and, whether in the outrageous trickery of Paddy McCourt, or the more conventional approach of Scott McDonald, Shaun Maloney, Aiden McGeady and Georgios Samaras, he is blessed with a clutch of players who are capable of transforming matches in the blink of an eye.
From that perspective, Smith has to perform minor miracles with a mediocre squad in the build-up to Sunday's lunchtime encounter. And yet, if the past is any yardstick, it would be unwise to write off this wily campaigner and certainly not in the cauldron of these Old Firm derbies. Last August, for instance, his team travelled to Parkhead and inflicted a comprehensive 4-2 defeat on their traditional adversaries, on an afternoon when Pedro Mendes oozed menace and penetration, Kenny Miller provided a brace of goals and Smith's decision to employ Daniel Cousin up front proved a masterstroke.
It was another illustration of how these tussles can be transformed through a tactical brainwave and there was no doubt Smith enjoyed the better of the psychological battles with his Celtic counterpart, Gordon Strachan. The question now, though, is whether he can maintain that supremacy against Mowbray and orchestrate a revival in three crucial departments.
The first is also the most contentious: namely, what does he do about Kris Boyd? Given that Rangers require a victory this weekend, Smith must surely call up his most prolific striker and demand an enhanced level of performance. In other circumstances, Boyd might fancy his chances of dismantling a rival defence which has already conceded some soft goals this season, yet there is something about the Scotland outcast's manner which suggests he is losing interest in keeping benches warm.
His frequent demotions should have acted as a spur, but Boyd is more obstinate than your average player and seems to have launched his own footballing version of a go-slow, when he's on the pitch. However, given Miller's loss of form and the lack of options available to Rangers, Smith might feel he has to start with Boyd and Novo, if for no other reason that he badly needs three points from this contest and has to hope the strike duo finally find the net.
Another source of concern is the fashion in which Mendes has drifted out of the picture. If the hosts are to contain the threat of McGeady, Maloney and Co, they will require lung-bursting displays from Mendes and Steven Davis, but the former, who shone brightly on his induction to Scottish football, has lost his lustre, and his ineffectual showings have been one of the reasons why Rangers have toiled of late.
Does Smith stick or twist with the former Portsmouth man? If it's the first, he will be entitled to ask for more effort and expertise and a repeat of last year's superb goal against Celtic wouldn't go amiss.
Ultimately, though, it is the third area of leadership on the field which must be causing Smith the biggest headaches.
Whatever one's opinion of Barry Ferguson, at least he had the capacity to grab a game by the scruff of the neck and mould the proceedings through the force of his will. McGeady possesses the same capabilities, as does Scott Brown, but Rangers, in the past month, have lacked urgency or a Plan B when things go wrong and have, occasionally, appeared to be going through the motions.
Obviously, the charged atmosphere which surrounds an Old Firm clash will galvanise all but the most lethargic of souls yet Rangers must aim to dictate the tempo at Ibrox, otherwise this could develop into another of the sterile affairs which scarred last season's schedules.
As usual with these derbies, offering predictions is hazardous. Sometimes, a famine precedes a feast of goals and Boyd, at his best, will create chances, while Steven Davis has the skill and confidence to worry Celtic. But, in the final analysis, and contrary to the perceived wisdom that form is irrelevant when the Old Firm square up, Mowbray's personnel are in the ascendancy just now and should continue that run.
PREDICTION: Rangers 1-2 Celtic