IT HAS been a long time coming, but Scotland has a truly competitive Premiership title race in 2020. After Rangers’ 2-1 win against Celtic at Parkhead at the end of the year, the reigning champions have a fight on their hands. Celtic fans won’t be feeling too comfortable, but the rest of Scotland will probably welcome the prospect of an exciting finale to the season.

There’s a little déjà vu about the situation. Last season, Rangers went into 2019 feeling rather chipper, but the challenge fizzled out and they finished nine points behind Celtic. “A reality check,” their former chairman called it.

This somehow feels different, Rangers have lost just once this season in the Premiership (to Celtic 1-0), and like Celtic, they’re still in the Europa League. Both have difficult ties in the last 32, Celtic facing FC København and Rangers taking on Portugal’s Braga.

Few people will care to admit it, but Celtic really need a competitive Rangers and the Gers need to be tested by their Old Firm neighbours – if only to keep each other on their toes. The rivalry is arguably one of the most bitter and intense in Europe and shows little sign of easing-up. There was controversy in the recent meeting when Alfredo Morales left the pitch sporting a cut-throat gesture to Celtic fans and there was the usual quota of arrests. Morales demonstration showed that the pressure of an Old Firm game gets to the players regardless of nationality – he is Colombian and was one of nine non-Scots in the Rangers starting line-up.

In the aftermath of the game at Parkhead, the Scottish press, or at least some segments of it, called for a more rational rivalry between the clubs, arguing that the Old Firm was “Scotland’s most visible export”. It’s doubtful the brewing or whiskey trade would agree with that, but it is certainly Scotland’s most visible sporting export, alongside Andy Murray!

Rangers have the best chance in almost a decade to end Celtic’s recent monopoly of the Scottish title. Celtic have won eight in a row along with four Scottish Cups and three Scottish League Cups since 2011-12. Rangers last won the title in 2011 and then they imploded, crushed by their finances. Celtic followers have been teasing their enemies by claiming the club died and went away, but that has been denied vehemently, even though the 2-1 win prompted declarations that “we’re back”.

Rangers may well be back and that win ended a sequence of bad results at Parkhead. In fact, Celtic have become too accustomed to beating them, 13 times since they returned to the top flight. Rangers have now won just three clashes, but this one will be seen as the most indicative yet.

Now that Rangers are back, the gulf between the Old Firm and the rest of the Scottish Premiership becomes very clear once more. Just consider the attendances – Celtic averaging almost 58,000 and Rangers close to 50,000. The other Premiership clubs average under 8,000.

Moreover, the average wage of a Celtic player is £ 896,000 per annum, while at Rangers the average salary is £ 650,000. The Premiership’s next biggest payer is Aberdeen, whose average is £ 140,000 per annum. Celtic’s wage bill is 38.5% higher than Rangers and 11.5 times the average among the other 10 clubs. By any calculation, that explains why Celtic have swept the board in recent times, they are simply too big for most of the competition.

Rangers, still in recovery mode after their financial meltdown, have some way to go to catch Celtic. Comparing the two clubs’ finances, Celtic’s revenues in 2018-19 were 57% higher. The Bhoys made a profit of £ 11.3 million, while Rangers made a loss of £ 11.3 million. To put this into context, Aberdeen’s turnover in 2018-19 was around £ 16 million with a loss of £ 5 million. Aberdeen were the last team other than Celtic and Rangers to win the Scottish title, but that was 35 long years ago.

Rangers were clearly ecstatic about winning at Parkhead and manager Steven Gerrard got a little carried away with his celebrations, which earned him some criticism. His Celtic counterpart, Neil Lennon, admitted that it is “game on” in the Scottish Premiership after Rangers cut the margin at the top to two points, on a day when Celtic’s lead could have been stretched to eight. Rangers also have a game in hand, but Lennon insists that there is no sense of panic at Celtic: “I’m sure the win has given Rangers a shot in the arm, but we are not prepared to give up anything.”

Now the transfer window is open, both clubs will undoubtedly be looking to strengthen their title bids. Celtic may have to unload some players before they add to their squad as their wage bill is at its peak. One player that could be heading for Parkhead is Slovan Bratislava’s Andraz Sporar, while Mali international defender Moussa Sassako of Paris Saint-Germain and Cruzeiro central defender Fabricio Bruno have also been linked to the club.

Meanwhile, Rangers have been looking at a number of players including Chelsea’s Olivier Giroud. Gerrard has the assistance of sporting director Ross Wilson in the recruitment process, but he has already spent more money than any Rangers manager over the past decade, so the club may have to sell before any significant acquisition is made.

One thing is certain, the second half of the season is going to ignite raw emotions in Glasgow and as everyone knows, the closer the two clubs become in competing for honours, the more febrile the Old Firm matches become. There is a sense of self belief at Rangers that had been mislaid for some time, and after meeting Celtic twice in December, and actually outplaying them in the Scottish League Cup final – despite losing – and in the league, the stage is set for a very interesting few months. For the first time in years, nothing is guaranteed for Celtic and there is expectation on both sides of a football crazy city. Worth watching.

@GameofthePeople

Photos: PA