Glasgow: Celtic’s plans for the first Old Firm clash against Rangers of a potentially historic season have been thrown into disarray by a series of positive coronavirus cases while players have been away on international duty.
The Scottish champions have expressed their frustration after star striker Odsonne Edouard and Israeli pair Nir Bitton and Hatem Elhamed all tested positive.
Ryan Christie will also miss Saturday’s match after being forced into a two-week isolation period as a close contact of Scotland teammate Stuart Armstrong, who also tested positive.
- Football: Celtic’s quest for historic 10-in-a-row in Scotland piles pressure on Gerrard’s Rangers
- Istanbul gears up for ‘historic’ Champions League final
- Football: Gerrard’s Rangers off to winning start in Scottish Premiership season
- Football: Scottish champions Celtic to play Gerrard’s Rangers in ‘friendly’ tournament next week
“While we apportion no blame whatsoever to anyone, this is now a very difficult position for us and, clearly, for all other clubs,” Celtic said in one of many statements over the international break, which hints at a broader club versus country battle ahead of the November internationals.
“Like all other clubs, we must do all we can to protect our squad and limit the very clear and obvious risks to players.”
The COVID cases are all the more disruptive before the first Old Firm derby for 10 months, with so much on the line for both sides.
Ten in a row
Celtic are aiming for a record-breaking 10th consecutive league title, bettering the nine-in-a-row mark reached by Celtic in the 1960s and 70s and Rangers in the late 1980s and 90s.
The Hoops have made a positive start to their title defence after previous coronavirus-related disruption when left-back Boli Bolingoli failed to quarantine after a trip to Spain in August, leading to the postponement of two fixtures.
Despite failing to hit top form, Neil Lennon’s men have won their past eight games in all competitions to sit just one point behind Rangers at the top of the Scottish Premiership with a game in hand.
The onus is therefore on Steven Gerrard’s side to take advantage of the misfortune of their fierce rivals.
Rangers won at Celtic Park for the first time in a decade when the sides last met in December.
However, Gerrard’s wild celebrations after the 2-1 victory came back to haunt him as Rangers collapsed in the months that followed, allowing Celtic to be crowned champions when the 2019/20 season was curtailed due to the pandemic on points per game.
Emotions should be more easily kept in check on Saturday, with both sides having to adjust to an Old Firm game without the usual accompanying cacophony of noise from the stands.
For the first time the Glasgow giants will meet behind closed doors and Celtic midfielder Olivier Ntcham believes that will also give Rangers a helping hand.
“Playing without fans is still strange, I feel, because the Celtic fans are known for being very passionate and loud in every match, home or away,” said the Frenchman.
“Even before games, when we’re driving to the park, or just before kick-off, when you’re walking down the tunnel and you don’t hear them on the other side — that’s so, so strange.
“For me, this also helps the opposition, especially at Celtic Park, because they can come to us and play with less pressure. On the pitch, our job remains the same, this is OK, but in your mind you do have to adjust. It’s a little bit different.”
In his first senior managerial role, Gerrard has defied the doubters to make Rangers a respected force in European football, beating Galatasaray earlier this month to secure qualification for the Europa League group stage for the third consecutive season.
But it is domestically he now has to deliver by halting Celtic’s monopoly on all major trophies in Scotland over the past four years.
The former Liverpool captain famously never managed to win a league title at Anfield. Failure to do so this season will likely mean he does not get a fourth season to prove himself at Ibrox.