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'Sulky' Morelos still the key to Rangers' bid to topple Celtic

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Self-destructive: Rangers striker Morelos remains the club’s prize asset with Jermain Defoe out injured. Photo: Reuters

Self-destructive: Rangers striker Morelos remains the club’s prize asset with Jermain Defoe out injured. Photo: Reuters

Self-destructive: Rangers striker Morelos remains the club’s prize asset with Jermain Defoe out injured. Photo: Reuters

Rangers contested the last professional match in Scotland before the Covid-19 shutdown - when they met Bayer Leverkusen at home in the last 16 of the Europa League on March 12 - and they will open the 2020/'21 league campaign today at Aberdeen.

The shape of the season was flagged as long ago as April 3, when we revealed the strength of clubs' support for Celtic to aim for a 10th successive title in a league which would not be reconstructed, going into a schedule that would have no winter break and in which the previous Scottish Cup tournament would be resolved before New Year.

Even so, the reality of fixtures played behind closed doors ­remains eerie and dislocating, despite the second-hand experience of witnessing games in England on TV.

Apart from Celtic Park, Pittodrie is the venue most consistently hostile to Rangers, a disposition that stretches back to Alex Ferguson's tenure in the Granite City during the 1980s. Today, the execrations of the home support will be replaced by the howls of seagulls from the nearby beach, whose usual experience of match days is a feeding frenzy.

Last season's Scottish title race - resolved when Celtic were accorded the status of champions - was a tale of two shutdowns. The first ­occurred when the Premiership closed for its annual winter break and the second was the Covid-19 lockdown in March.

Had the pandemic struck Scotland on January 1 and forced an end to competition for the season, the final positions would have been reversed and Rangers' victory at Celtic Park in the festive derby two days previously - their first success at the home of their arch foes for nine years - would have been truly epochal.

The win brought Steven Gerrard's players to within two points of Celtic, and they had a game in hand. If the season had to be called at that stage, using the average points per game system, Rangers - who had 53 points from 20 games - would have been champions with a coefficient of 2.65 against 2.619 for Celtic, who had 55 points from 21 games.

The abiding image from the December 29 derby was that of Alfredo Morelos trudging from the field, having incurred two needless yellow cards. Morelos, Rangers' top scorer in 2019/'20, had scored 12 league goals up to that stage, although none against Celtic. In eight further league appearances before the coronavirus lockdown, the Colombian failed to find the net.

Morelos's barren spell coincided with the slump in which Rangers lost to Hearts, Kilmarnock and Hamilton and drew with Aberdeen and St Johnstone.

The Ibrox board were duty-bound to oppose Celtic's coronation as champions in a truncated season, but their case was fatally undermined by the collapse in their form. The striker remains top scorer in the ongoing Europa League but his tendency to self-destructive sulks - plus failure to score against Celtic - has undermined his market value.

Nevertheless, he remains Rangers' prize asset and Gerrard has to be canny about how he deploys Morelos, ­especially in the absence of his fellow attacker, Jermain Defoe, victim of a hamstring injury.

Celtic should begin their quest for a 10th successive title with victory at home to Hamilton tomorrow.

© Daily Telegraph, London

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