They are so far in front they are virtually over the horizon and out of sight.
Yet despite their dramatic Old Firm winner on the last day of February which put them ten points clear of their bitter rivals, and with a game in-hand to boot, manager Walter Smith and his players are sticking to their guns that there is nothing to celebrate just yet at Ibrox.
There was an outburst of emotion at the end of the Pengeluaran HK Old Firm game at Ibrox. A winning goal in injury time is always provocative, but the response was an indication of significance.
Satisfaction ought to be enduring. The season remains poised for Rangers, though, as success is possible in all three domestic competitions, but not guaranteed. “We’ve not won anything yet,” says Steven Whittaker, the full-back. “We’ve still got to follow it through.”
The doubt is novel for Rangers, as all three of the club’s title wins since 2000 have been achieved on the final day of the season. The emphasis now is on avoiding complacency. There is familiarity in encountering Premier League opponents at least three times in each campaign, but other factors are also relevant.
Almost every side in the top flight still has something to play for. Fixtures against the Old Firm also tend to raise spirits. No game should be considered elementary. “That’s the Old Firm, we’re used to that,” says Smith. “But you get to this stage of the season and there’s a lot at stake for the teams. Our league gets a bit of criticism, for being so small and playing each other four times, but it does bring a situation at the end of the season where there’s no easy matches. The majority of games have a bit of meaning to them. I always stress to the boys that at this stage of the season, a wee bit of an extra edge comes into it for everybody concerned.”
The mood at Rangers is one of denial. Points have been accrued through sheer force of will at times this season, but they can still be rendered worthless.
David Weir and other senior players have already prohibited loose talk in the dressing-room. Assumptions about winning the treble are considered hazardous. The pursuit of honours can be gruelling, but the hardship is necessary.
“You need to try to forget about the position you’re in and concentrate on the points that are still available,” said Whittaker. “We still need to continue on the winning streak we’re on. It’s in our own hands and we need to keep putting pressure on the rest. We all know what’s at stake, we all know what it’s like to win a championship, we did it last season. The motivation is there to do that again.”
There is little respite for Rangers; midweek fixtures will exert a strain on the squad. Injuries might still imperil the team, but Smith can at least take comfort from the current clean bill of health. Even the international week proved obliging right after the Old Firm game with 13 Ibrox players off on international duty around the globe.
Meanwhile, through, Smith has lambasted all referee talk in the wake of a month in which the men in the middle have come firmly under the spotlight.
In the build-up to February’s Old Firm game, Celtic leaked it that they had complained to the SFA about the standard of officiating after they felt a catalogue of decisions have gone against them so far this term, three of which have happened in games against Rangers.
Their complaints appeared to backfire with Scott Brown harshly dismissed at Ibrox and the subsequent appeal thrown out. Rangers, though, were at the centre of another storm when St Mirren boss Gus MacPherson then claimed Weir ought to have been sent off and Smith’s patience snapped.
“Everybody wants people to get ordered off and everybody wants penalties against us,” he claimed. “Everybody wants everything against us at the moment.
“I don’t know what road we are going down in that respect. I didn’t see much in it myself, I’ve got to say.
“We seem to be reaching a ridiculous stage where refereeing decisions are actually becoming far more important than the game itself.”
Smith also spoke out following last weekend’s Old Firm derby triumph when he criticised the unnamed Hoops source who revealed the club’s unhappiness with decisions which they felt had gone against them this season.
The Ibrox boss added: “Everybody starts talking about the refereeing decisions but it’s a game of football.
“Refereeing decisions good, bad or indifferent have been part of football for a good number of years. When I started, Jim McLean, Alex Ferguson, Jock Stein – they all moaned about refereeing decisions. I moan about them. Everybody moans about them.
“But now, in Scotland, it seems to be going into an area where it’s taking on far greater significance. “Your team has got to be good enough to overcome them. As far as referees are concerned, they make their decisions and we’ve got to get on with it.
“Referees in every league in the world are under scrutiny for the decisions they make.
“Now, in ours, it’s every weekend that we are playing it’s becoming the referees who are influencing games. It should be players and managers who are influencing games.
“The better the job we do at it, then the better our teams do. I moan at referees’ decisions, and I have done over my career, but I think it’s reaching a ridiculous proportion in Scotland at the moment and it’s not giving the referees the proper opportunity to do their jobs.”
The irregular rhythm of international football has not come easily to new Scotland boss Craig Levein.
The Hampden boss got his regime off to the ideal start with a 1-0 friendly win over the Czech Republic – the first time Scotland have won a friendly match on their own turf for 14 years.
In fairness, the Scots rode their luck a little but an opportunist goal from Scott Brown kept up the feelgood factor in the national side.
Levein took the win in his stride and is now looking ahead to massive overhaul of the Scottish game, from the roots up.
“I have a lot of players to watch and games to see,” he said. “This summer is going to be busy. I am not going to the World Cup but there are lots of friendlies on. And I haven’t even touched on the whole structure of the youth thing.”
Levein’s main modus operandi as a football manager is to be more thoroughand methodical than his opponent. But he discovered last week just how limited a Scotland manager’s time with his squad actually is. He issued players with detailed DVDs focusing on every player in the Czech squad, and will expand that programme in the future. But he is so fearful of bombarding players with an information overload in a short space of time that he has had to hold himself back.
“There is a temptation to get overly excited, and say ‘Lets do this, and this, and this’,” Levein said. “I have to rein myself back a bit. Although I haven’t had a game for three months, some of these guys have had three games in a week. It was a very important moment for me, but in a way it was just another international friendly for them.”
That is why the ones who will be given the summer off are the playersthemselves. It was confirmed last week that Scotland’s next assignment will be in Sweden on August 11, with Levein having knocked back a friendly or squad gathering during the internationalweek in May.
He feels that limiting Scotland sessions safeguards their importance. He hopes that allowing the players to focus on their holidays in the summer is a trade-off which may help them return to action refreshed and enthusiastic in time for the twin double-headers against Lithuania and Liechtenstein in September, and the Czech Republic and Spain in October.
“The UK leagues are the toughest in the world,” Levein said. “I feel that physically the amount of fixtures, the conditions you play under, and the tempo of the games, more than take their toll on the players. So I made a decision they would have from now until the summer off, but we have four games in September and October, and I want them fresh and ready to work hard. We need to put in a similar effort but also add that little bit more quality and composure to our play.”
To this end, Levein still has decisions to make on how players unavailable last week, such as Shaun Maloney, Kris Commons, James Morrison and Kirk Broadfoot might fit into the jigsaw. The Barry Ferguson issue has been parked until the summer, when further discussions between will take place. Chief scout Michael Oliver’s unprecedented player search has turned up a few other options for the future, with the SFA refusing to give up on Newcastle United striker Andy Carroll.
Ideally, Levein will be in a position to add real quality to his squad and build on the confidence gained from the victory over the Czechs. The pluses outweighed the minuses on Wednesday,but it was a close-run thing. One such positive was the result itself, and a clean sheet against a side who Levein feels are strongest “middle to front”.
Individual displays from Graham Dorrans, Charlie Adam and Lee Wallace suggest they are more than ready to make an impact during this campaign. Scott Brown weighed in with a winner and another mighty display for his country. There was also the maturity shown by the Scotland crowd over the return of Kris Boyd and the performance the player produced.
On the other hand, however, was the realisation that a Czech side without Petr Cech, Milan Baros, David Rozehnal and Zdenek Grygera got the better of the Scots for large swathes of the game. Star turns included Tomas Rosicky and Jaroslav Plasil but there were no real surprises for Levein.
“There weren’t any of them who we thought ‘oh we will have to give them more attention’,” Levein said. “But if we are going to beat them in either of the qualifying games we will have to play well, our defenders will have to be very good and our goalkeeper will have to be good. The Czechs might have better individuals, but the team and the work ethic are worth more than 10 places in the world rankings. The question is whether they can be worth more than 20 places in the rankings?”
While Levein was celebrating a win in his first game in charge, his chief scout, Michael Oliver, was spying on Spain, whom Scotland face in the Euro 2012 qualifiers.
“Michael told me they were the best team he had ever seen, and that we shouldn’t bother turning up.”
Back to earth with a bump then.
Celtic and the SFA have gone to war.
It all began with a Celtic ‘source’ leaking a story to the media in the frantic build-up to February’s Old Firm game about a Parkhead complaint to the game’s governing body over a lenghty list of complaints they believe have gone against them this term.
Both previous Old Firm games were cited in the list, the first when Celtic were denied what was a stonewall penalty at Ibrox in a game they lost 2-1, the other in the game against Rangers in January when they were denied a goal from Marc-Antoine Fortune, a match they went on to draw 1-1.
In between times we a couple of offside goals against Falkirk and Dundee United that TV cameras later proved to be legitimate. Celtic drew both of the games.
However, the furore that greeted their complaints ensured that referee Dougie McDonald was under intense pressure going into the third Old Firm game at Ibrox at the end of the month. The game was an hour old when Scott McDonald and Kyle Lafferty tussled and the red card was waved in Brown, the Celtic captain’s direction.
It seemed a harsh decision and the Parkhead side went on to lose a game they really needed to win with a goal conceded in the dying seconds of the game. The celebrations from the Ibrox dugout told their own story with regards to whether or not they really believe the league title is not over just yet.
Celtic’s appeal was then thrown out by the SFA, but the simmering resentment on the part of the Parkhead club continues to linger.
In truth, they have been undone this season by a combination of desperately poor finishing in games they have dominated, while at the back they have have toiled desperately defensively. So far this term Celtic have conceded an astounding 29 SPL goals.
They have not been helped by a string of poor refereeing decisions and it is no slight to say that Scottish whistlers have had an appalling season, not just when officiating Celtic games but in an entire host of matches where blatant mistakes have been shown up. Yet, it was the actual appeal process which so rankled Mowbray. “Who was the appeal to?,” he said. “My frustration is that the same referee who has made the decision on the day has another look at it and the matter is finished.
“It doesn’t seem much of an appeal. If you appeal something, then you want to do so to an independent body. But that is not the case here.
“I didn’t know the process before we went into this. I thought we would appeal, someone would have a look at it and think, ‘yeah, maybe the referee got that one wrong’, without going over the top of the individual or wagging a figure at him.
“If it gets thrown out by an independent panel then you say, ‘fine, we all move on’. It just seems harsh to me that the guy who makes the decision is then asked to make another decision.”
Mowbray said that he had watched the video of the Brown-Lafferty clash on four or five subsequent occasions, and he remains convinced that McDonald made the wrong decision in sprinting across the Ibrox pitch to brandish his red card at Brown.
“I’ve watched it back and I can’t see a sending-off,” the Celtic manager said. “Even if you think I have a level of bias because I work for this football club, I still can’t see a sending-off. As a guy who looks at things honestly, I can’t see what he [Brown] has done. People have said to me that it might be a headbutt, but is there a headbutt? The crime of feigning a potential headbutt might be more of a crime than what Scott Brown did. If you can sit there and honestly believe Scott threw his head towards at him and that his headbutt was a violent act, then fine. I have watched it and can’t see it. I just can’t see it.
“Scott has been flung around. He was put in a headlock and thrown to the floor. When you watch it back, it is wrong.
“And the other frustration is, in such a massive game with the whole world watching, and given what happened in the previous two Old Firm matches, why make such a big decision if you aren’t sure of it?”
With the pressure building around the Celtic manager, Mowbray insisted that he would be there for the long term at the club.
There are various rumours doing the rounds that Mowbray will quit Celtic in the summer – or even be pushed – but he blankly denied such notions. Winning the Active Nation Scottish Cup, however, now seems more essential than ever to Mowbray and Celtic.
“From my perspective we have to keep going, keep working with the team, keep building it,” he added. “I see positive signs, but I also see parts of the team we still need to work with, but we will keep going.
“This team has to win every season. Some seasons you do, some you don’t. Our goal at the start of every season is to win everything. We have to go and try to win our league games and see what happens. But it is there for Rangers to lose it now.
“It’s the same as every year. This club has to win something, but if you don’t, do you throw everything out and start again? If you are logical, then you don’t, you buy into what you believe is going to take the club in the right direction and you keep going.
“Gordon [Strachan] was very successful and won three championships, but I play a different style of football – a different type of football. I want expansive football and at times it can be like a rollercoaster. You are going to have days where you lose goals, but you will also have days of great victories and fantastic football. That’s the journey you go on.”