Unbeaten in his first 12 games as Rangers coach, Steven Gerrard has made a seamless transition to soccer management and an impressive start to his task of restoring the flagging fortunes of Scotland’s most decorated club.
A familiar face from his Liverpool past is looking to bring an end to that extended honeymoon period.
The soccer hotbed of Glasgow will come alive on Sunday when Rangers meets Celtic in the “Old Firm” derby, with one of the fiercest team rivalries in the sport getting added spice because of the men in the dugout.
Attempting to outsmart Gerrard is Celtic counterpart Brendan Rodgers, who was manager of Liverpool in Gerrard’s final years at the English club. Together, along with the prolific Luis Suarez, they came agonizingly close in 2014 to ending Liverpool’s long wait for a league title.
Gerrard has since said he wished Rodgers had been his manager in the prime of his career.
So high is Gerrard’s respect for Rodgers that he has tried to model some of his coaching philosophy on his former manager, namely skills as a man-manager and motivator.
This weekend is, therefore, a big one for both men.
For Gerrard, a chance to make a huge statement in his fledgling managerial career. For Rodgers, a chance to shoot down an upstart coach from Celtic’s big rival across the city.
“I am looking forward to seeing Steven,” Rodgers said. “He is a good guy. We worked well together at Liverpool.
“There is no doubt Steven has made a difference to them and made a change to them, a positive change.”
And that can only be good news for Scottish soccer, which has been dominated by Celtic amid a run of seven straight Scottish league titles that brought its total to 49 - only five behind Rangers’ national record. Two seasons ago, Rodgers’ team went through its entire domestic campaign unbeaten.
Rangers, meanwhile, has been battling back to relevance after being forced to start again in the bottom tier of the Scottish game in 2012 following a financial meltdown. The blue half of Glasgow scrambled back up the four-division league pyramid to the top tier in 2016 but has always resembled a club in crisis and not been a serious challenge to its neighbor - until, perhaps, this season.
Gerrard, who retired from playing in 2016, took the Rangers job in May after having previously been in charge of Liverpool’s under-18 team. He has brought with him all the authority and gravitas of a former Liverpool and England captain, and his offseason signings - mostly from England’s lower leagues - are proving to be astute.
Rangers has progressed through the grueling qualifying rounds of the Europa League to reach the group stage of a European competition for the first time in eight years.
“I think we have relaunched Rangers tonight,” Gerrard said Thursday after the team grinded out a 1-1 draw against Russian club Ufa in a game Rangers finished with nine men.
In the Scottish Premiership, Rangers has beaten St. Mirren at home and drawn twice away after conceding injury-time equalizers in both games. Rangers is one point behind Celtic.
Celtic hasn’t lost an Old Firm game in 90 minutes since 2012, and beat Rangers 5-0 in April to clinch the league title in perfect fashion last season. It’s a safe bet that Rangers will put up a tougher fight on Sunday.
On a personal level, Gerrard, despite all his praise for Rodgers, might also have a point to prove. It was Rodgers who had the unenviable task of handling and managing the end of Gerrard’s Liverpool career. That included taking an aging Gerrard out of the team at times, including for a match at Real Madrid in the Champions League.
“I wondered,” Gerrard wrote in his autobiography, “if this was his way of showing the press that he was strong enough to make a difficult decision.”
Also in that book, Gerrard was also quite critical of Rodgers when discussing the 2-0 loss to Chelsea in the Premier League run-in in the 2013-14 season that ultimately cost Liverpool the title. That was the game where Gerrard slipped over to allow Chelsea to score the opening goal, a painful moment in his career.
“I’ve never been able to say this in public before but I was seriously concerned that we thought we could blow Chelsea away,” Gerrard wrote. “I sensed an overconfidence in Brendan’s team talks.”
But that is in the past. Sunday’s match at Parkhead marks a new phase in their relationship, and potentially a genuine rebirth of one of soccer’s biggest rivalries.
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