Who will win fascinating but flawed Old Firm title race?

Scottish Premiership: Celtic v Rangers

When: Saturday, 11 May Where: Celtic Park, Glasgow Kick-off: 12:30 BST

Follow live coverage of the Old Firm derby here

When Brendan Rodgers gave Philippe Clement a verbal poke last week, declaring Celtic’s intention to have fun in the last Old Firm derby of the season, it was instructive of where we’re at as a title race in Scotland.

Rodgers doesn’t usually go in for mind games, normally rising above such things. He appeared to make an exception in this case, though.

In his time at Rangers, Clement has been a largely measured presence but he, too, changed demeanour in replying to Rodgers in the way he did.

He bit hard, calling it “not really respectful towards my team”.

He wasn’t exactly spontaneously combusting like Kevin “I would love it” Keegan in his 1996 pomp but, speaking last weekend, Clement’s reaction illustrated the tension at the top of the league.

“I am looking forward to that [game] and to be honest I would love that it was tomorrow instead of next week. We are really hungry for that game.”

Both managers revisited the subject on Friday. Rodgers spoke of there being "no context whatsoever" in the headlines, which were "totally without merit".

Clement, meanwhile, insisted the matter was "finished" and that he wouldn't have time to sleep if he had to "comment on every comment in this town".

Unfamilar title territory stokes excitement

Regardless, there is an unmissable edge here that’s rare in mid-May. Normally, the title is done - or as good as done - by now. Nothing has gone to the wire in an age.

This time last season, Celtic were eight points ahead with three to play. The season before it was tighter than usual but it was still six points.

Before that, Rangers took a 20-point lead into this round of fixtures in 2020-21. And in the seasons previously, Celtic’s advantage at the top with three left was nine, 10, 20, nine, 11, 27, 12 and 21 points.

We’re in pretty unfamiliar territory now.

Celtic are warm favourites to win a 12th title in 13 years but their lead is only three points. They have home advantage on Saturday against a side that hasn’t even led against them this season, not to mind beaten them, but they’re not a shoo-in.

Much has been made of their 3-0 win over Hearts last Saturday, which was genuinely impressive.

Callum McGregor was back to close to his old self in the heart of the midfield. Reo Hatate was influential. The defence, marshalled by Cameron Carter-Vickers, weathered an early Hearts storm.

It was a Celtic performance that had a touch of a throwback about it, a reminder of the authority they had under Rodgers in his first season in charge in 2016-17.

But only two games before that they were defensively shambolic in the Scottish Cup semi-final against Aberdeen, conceding three times. Rangers scored three against them not long before that.

Was the Hearts game a turning of a corner or an outlier in a battling season? And even if it was an outlier, are Rangers good enough to take advantage of any weakness?

Kilmarnock and Hearts have better records against Celtic than Rangers this season, both beating them twice.

Can Rangers disrupt Rodgers' record?

One of the more staggering facts about Rodgers versus Rangers is that in 16 games, and 1,440 minutes, his Celtic team have only trailed for 108 minutes in total.

That record needs to change on Saturday. It’s now or never for Clement’s boys in what has been a fascinating, if flawed, title race.

On numerous occasions, to use a horse-racing analogy, Rodgers has been like a jockey under a faltering horse, working furiously with the whip while trying to drive things forward.

His first incarnation as Celtic manager rarely saw his team come off the bridle. It was a canter by comparison.

This time around he’s had injuries to key men, two transfer windows where he didn’t appear to get the kind of player he wanted, a stuttering side that he has, at times, called “soft”, “nowhere near it” and “bullied.”

At half-time in a league game in December against St Johnstone he said he was the “angriest I’ve ever been as a manager”. He spoke about a lack of intensity, desire and warned against timidity. Those were not good days.

There was also unrest among the support, who he chastised on occasion.

If the Celtic job was supposed to be a redemption song after getting the sack at Leicester 13 months ago, it was proving a whole lot more difficult than most people thought.

Rodgers has got Celtic’s nose in front, though.

If they win their three remaining league games, they’ll finish on 93 points. Only six behind Ange Postecoglou’s total last season (somehow, it feels the gap should be wider) and the same as the Australian's total the season before.

Will Clement find way to break derby duck?

Now it’s down to Rangers to get the better of a guy who must feel like a bogeyman to them.

As Rodgers alluded to earlier in the season, in his time at Celtic he’s counted the Rangers managers in and he’s counted them back out again, from Mark Warburton and Pedro Caixinha to Graeme Murty and Michael Beale.

Rangers, under Clement, will bemoan three days of madness in April when they lost at Ross County and drew at Dundee. Those results may prove ruinous.

After delivering consistency and displaying mental strength under their new manager, Clement’s team suddenly went rogue on him and those results might be the ones that end up dynamiting their league season.

The flip side is that when Clement took over from Beale in October, few thought it possible that Rangers would cause Celtic much trouble. Maybe Celtic have caused themselves bother, but the upshot is that it’s close. At last.

You have to go back to October 2020 to find the last Rangers league win at Celtic Park, which is why the hopes of their fans might be tempered somewhat.

Eight of their starting 11 and two of the three subs used on the day are no longer Rangers players. This is a task that most of those currently in blue have never measured up to before.

Will there be a sense of freedom about them given their underdog status? Nobody outside of the Rangers bubble expects them to win, so they can use that.

It would be surprising if Clement doesn’t reference ‘fungate’. Maybe he already has. That’s more motivation.

In the stands it’ll be 60,000 against them and nobody with them. Further fuel. But is it enough?

Whatever happens, it’s refreshing that the destination of the title is not the usual formality we see this time of year.

There’s life in it yet, but that life will drain unless Rangers can overcome the firm hold that Rodgers has over them.

Expect the ‘fun’ word to be used again if they fail.