Football/Soccer

Callum McGregor claims Celtic are getting back to best form

Celtic's Callum McGregor scores his side's second goal of the game from the penalty spot during the UEFA Europa League Group H match at Celtic Park, Glasgow on Thursday December 10, 2020. Picture by Jane Barlow/PA Wire.
Ronnie Esplin and Andy Newport

Callum McGregor believes Celtic are getting back to their best as they prepare to begin 2021 with a trip to Old Firm rivals Rangers.

The 2-0 defeat to the Light Blues at Parkhead in October began a poor run of form which saw the Hoops win only two games in 12 with some fans protesting for change outside the stadium.

However, boss Neil Lennon has turned it around with six wins in a row and they go to Ibrox on Saturday sitting 16 points behind Premiership leaders Rangers with three games in hand.

And, according to stand-in skipper McGregor, Celtic are on their way to top form.

The Scotland midfielder said: "We are getting there. We have scored goals. We are probably not just as free-flowing as we have been recently but we have created chances so it is just a case of putting the chances away.

"So we are starting to get there, we look good, the shape is decent and we are starting to look more solid as well.

"We are on a decent run and we are looking forward to the game.

"We have certainly built a wee bit of momentum going into the game so we are looking forward to it.

"We came through a difficult period and managed to get back on track.

"We have completed the season from last year (with a delayed 2020 William Hill Scottish Cup final win over Hearts) which is a nice wee boost but there is a lot of football to be played and it starts again on Saturday."

The famous old fixture will be played behind closed doors as it was at Celtic Park in October as the ban on supporters due to the coronavirus crisis continues.

McGregor said: "It was a bit strange. Obviously you associate the fixture with the fans and the thrill of the game.

"It is a little bit different but we have had enough time to adjust to the empty stadiums and trying to get the intensity of the game right.

"Both teams are obviously trying to win the game and we need to expect a really strong Rangers side. These games are always difficult.

"You have to be at your best to win the game, I think that has been shown in the last three or four years.

"If you are not quite right you will get done and that is the same for us.

"We go into the game with confidence high and we have scored a few goals as well recently which is good so we know what we can bring to the table and we just have to prepare properly and turn up on the day."

RANGERS 'A DIFFERENT CHALLENGE' FOR RESURGENT CELTIC - STEVEN GERRARD

By Andy Newport, PA

Steven Gerrard has warned Neil Lennon's resurgent Celtic they face an altogether stiffer test when they take on his rampant Rangers on Saturday.

Parkhead boss Lennon has managed to stave off furious protests from Hoops fans demanding he quit after engineering a mini recovery.

The reigning champions are clinging onto their dreams of 10 titles in a row by their finger nails having dropped 16 points behind Gerrard's Light Blues, albeit with three games in hand.

But they have managed to stabilise things in recent weeks and go into the second Old Firm battle of the season at Ibrox on a run of seven games without defeat.

However, their last three wins have come against Hamilton and Ross County - who both sit in the relegation spots - plus a Dundee United side that has mustered just one win their last six games.

And Gerrard says it is down to Celtic to prove they can cope with his unbeaten Premiership leaders this weekend.

He said: "I haven't really focused on Celtic's form. Our schedule has been very demanding so I haven't had time to breathe in terms of focusing on any other opposition apart from the ones we've faced.

"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 so we go into this game confident and in a good place.

"Celtic have obviously won their last couple of games, against Hamilton, Ross County and Dundee United - but they're playing Rangers and it's a different challenge for them and a different challenge for us and it's one we're looking forward to."

And Gerrard says long gone are the days when his squad fear a clash against their arch rivals.

He said: "I'm on record before as saying the first time we came up against Brendan Rodgers' Celtic, it was only normal that there was a lot of anxiety. There was still players feeling a bit of hurt from previous fixtures and scorelines.

"And I think it was only natural that we approached that game a little bit apprehensive.

"But 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.

"That's not to say that the challenge isn't going to be tough or that we don't respect the opposition or that everything will be straight forward. It's not like that.

"These derby games are very challenging, very tough, there's good players on both sides.

"But for sure in terms of the confidence and the belief, every single one of my players is looking forward to this fixture. It does feel different than the first one we played."

However, Gerrard knows his side still have to prove they can go the distance.

In both his previous two campaigns in charge, the Ibrox outfit have put themselves in position to challenge at the midway point after securing notable derby wins in December, only to blow up on their return from the winter shutdown.

The Rangers boss has, however, no time for the conspiracy theorists who have spread rumour and innuendo about last season's January sunshine trip to Dubai.

And with the Covid-19 crisis meaning there will be no halting the action this month, Gerrard hopes his team can now power on to the finish line.

He said: "We've had success in this fixture in the previous two seasons and haven't really gone and built on that - that's there in black and white.

"It's different this season with no winter break but the fixtures don't change. Hopefully we can get a result that continues our rhythm.

"But people make an awful lot of winter breaks and Dubai but for me it's a load of nonsense.

"The reality is we haven't really been the best version of ourselves from the turn of the new year in both seasons, that's the reality of it - and using Dubai or the winter break as an excuse is an easy way out for us.

"We're very much focused on each fixture as and when it comes and they're no bigger than this one.

"We could not ask to be going into this game in a better place.

"Certainly from a league point of view our form has been superb. We've been consistent, we've been hungry.

"We've got one or two injuries but we won't use that as an excuse. We've come through St Mirren unscathed and we're really excited for the fixture."

THE MAJOR TALKING POINTS AHEAD OF THE OLD FIRM DERBY

Rangers and Celtic meet in the second Old Firm derby of the season at Ibrox on Saturday - and the result could go a long way to determining the destination of the Premiership title.

Connor Goldson's double gave Rangers the bragging rights back in October and the Light Blues have gone from strength to strength since then, while the Hoops suffered a major wobble during a miserable run that saw them win just twice in 12 games.

Here Andy Newport (PA) takes a look at the big talking points ahead of the match:

Neil Lennon's date with destiny

The Celtic boss has doused the flames of protest that were sparked as his side lurched from one humiliating result to another, leaving their dreams of 10-in-a-row hanging by a thread and European ambitions ruined. The angry mob that gathered outside Celtic Park following the shock Betfred Cup defeat to Ross County have fallen back after seeing Lennon stabilise results, with the quadruple treble secured amid a run of seven games without defeat. But lose at Ibrox and the fans' fury will return with a vengeance. Defeat does not appear to be an option for the Northern Irishman.

Time for Gers to show staying power

Ibrox boss Steven Gerrard has emerged victorious in both of his previous two festive Old Firm clashes but he has not been able to translate those wins into sustained success. Twice Rangers have gone into the winter break on the high of derby delight only to freeze on their return to action. They do not have that issue to face this term after the Covid-19 crisis forced Premiership chiefs to axe the January shutdown but Gerrard knows his side will have to silence their doubters who are expecting his side to run out of steam yet again. Victory, however, will put the Light Blues 19 points clear and while Celtic still have three games in hand, it is hard to see how they could throw away that kind of lead.

Old guard or new blood for Hoops?

Lennon stuck by the majority of the players who have guided the Parkhead side to unprecedented success in recent years during last month's William Hill Scottish Cup triumph over Hearts, with Scott Brown leading his side out at Hampden. But Brown has only managed 10 minutes of action since then because of injury and Ismaila Soro continues to put in displays which suggest he is a more energetic option than Lennon's captain, having also opened his club account during Wednesday's win over Dundee United. In defence, Lennon will also face a big call over who to start with Christopher Jullien set to be ruled out after a nasty collision with a goalpost. Shane Duffy is the more natural defender but the Irishman was left on the bench against United as Lennon turned to Nir Bitton instead when Jullien was stretchered off.

Old Firm specialist Ryan Kent may have to wait his turn

Rangers may have put together a blemish-free start to the Premiership campaign so far but the league leaders have still had to contend with form issues among their key men. Alfredo Morelos only ended a three-month scoring drought in the league on Wednesday as he finally netted against St Mirren. And Ryan Kent was benched for that 2-0 win in Paisley after seeing his early-season productivity drop off rapidly in recent weeks. The £7million recruit from Liverpool is something of a derby specialist having netted twice at Celtic Park but his touch was again out when he come on as a substitute against Saints and Gerrard insists he will not let sentiment sway his team selection this weekend.

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Football/Soccer