FOR the aspiring boardroom member, attending the prestigious Champions League group-stage draw must be the equivalent of competing in the celebrated competition for the players. All those years of corporate, number-crunching, HR-appeasing, memo-drafting preparation have led to this point as they slip inside the Grimaldi Forum event centre in Monaco to the rippling applause of the air conditioning system in full flow. This din drowned out by the smooth-jazz rendition of Zadok the Priest playing in the lift in the lobby. The plush woollen carpet beneath patent-leather shoes that step over the white line into the amphitheatre. Rivals’ hands shaken before settling into positions for a 50-minute snooze as a pair of wooden automatons do their best to make the beautiful game out to be about as inspiring as a frayed Brillo pad tucked behind the tap in the sink of an abandoned house in Kilmarnock.

So, spare a thought for James Bisgrove, the Rangers ceo, who will have to wait another year at least to sport his shiniest club tie at the top table of football’s most corporate of shindigs. Yes, Rangers stumbled, then fell, then were trampled over by the steaming hooves of PSV Eindhoven at the final hurdle of Champions League qualifying on Wednesday night. He’ll have to settle for a seat at the Europa League draw today, with the image of an enraptured Celtic counterpart Michael Nicholson imbuing the third six-minute VT of the evening, a celebration of the AS Monaco side that reached the Champions League final in 2004, burned on his retinas.

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Glasgow Times: Rangers chief executive James BisgroveRangers chief executive James Bisgrove (Image: SNS)

There had been some cautionary words coming out of Ibrox in the lead-up to that second-leg humbling in Eindhoven that qualification was not the be all and end all for Rangers’ season. Maybe it wasn’t make or break that they collected the additional £10m or so for reaching the Champions League, but much of the significant summer spend will have been sanctioned with this clear goal in mind. And more than that, this is supposed to be a club that refuses to accept defeat. Ironically, given last season’s Champions League whitewash, avoiding defeat against lesser opposition in the second tier could well claw back some of the financial deficit at the same time as the reputational damage incurred. Ultimately at Rangers, it’s winning games that counts, and who wouldn’t take the previous season’s journey to the Europa League final over six defeats from six against Liverpool, Napoli and Ajax?

If Rangers and manager Michael Beale are to be judged on winning games, then August was a difficult month. Call it the luck of the draw, but eight games across three competitions is a tough ask for any manager. For Beale, four wins, two draws and two defeats in the course of the month does not exactly spell out a sterling start. So now that September has begun, this weekend’s first derby of the season against Premiership champions Celtic offers little respite. However, despite the luxury of just four matches during the same period, Celtic’s inauspicious opening has certainly helped the Englishman to keep his powder dry.

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Glasgow Times: James Forrest unfurls the league flag at Celtic ParkJames Forrest unfurls the league flag at Celtic Park (Image: SNS)

When Celtic went in at half-time 3-0 to the good against Ross County at Celtic Park on August 5, the sense of another Brendan Rodgers procession to domestic glories was birling in the wind along with the freshly hoisted league flag over the Main Stand. But the final scoreline of 4-2 will have sounded an alarm bell or two among the 60,000 in attendance. When Rangers went on to lose at Rugby Park against Kilmarnock that evening to kick off their Premiership tilt, though, there was even talk of the title race being over after just 180 minutes. A 3-1 win away to Aberdeen the following weekend maintained the buoyancy around Parkhead, while Rangers continued to take body blows as they eventually saw off Servette over two legs. As for the luck of the play-off draw? A confident PSV Eindhoven side managed by Peter Bosz was about as difficult as they could have asked for.

But what has followed since that win at Pittodrie for Celtic has allowed Rangers to bounce off the ropes a little. First, the treble-winners went and chucked the Viaplay Cup out of the trophy room following a trip to the frayed Brillo-pad surface at Rugby Park, then, with Rodgers having made a great deal of the chance to put things right in front of a full home crowd against St Johnstone, they contrived a stalemate with one of the worst form teams in the Orion Arm of the Milky Way galaxy.

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Glasgow Times: Kyogo Furuhashi gets a closer look at Killie's plastic pitchKyogo Furuhashi gets a closer look at Killie's plastic pitch (Image: SNS)

So, who goes into this Old Firm showdown in better health? Rangers have the obvious home advantage, especially with Celtic having turned down the magnanimous offer of a few spare seats tucked away in a corner of the ground like that ruddy old Brillo pad tucked behind the tap in the sink. Beale’s side have looked less Brillo pad and more Brylcreem in recent weeks, and have possibly reached that white, creamy stage of the gelling process – sometimes brill, sometimes creamed 5-1 by Dutch opposition.

Rangers have a range of Bambi-esque attacking options who are slowly, slowly starting to find their feet, and Beale just about has a preferred starting XI now after that crammed eight-match cycle. Celtic’s greatest weakness at present is clearly in defence, where Cameron Carter-Vickers remains absent through injury, his willing and often able deputy Carl Starfelt has moved on, his replacement Maik Nawrocki has joined Carter-Vickers on the injury list, and future prospect Gustaf Lagerbielke has been forced into the fray probably in a more pronounced role than even he would have liked so soon after his arrival, with forgotten man Liam Scales drafted in to partner him in the absence of fellow fringe man Stephen Welsh.

You put these two factors together, and Rodgers, travelling to Ibrox, with his team failing to score in their last two games, ought to set up defensively to cover that weakened back line. Ironically enough, there is a strong argument that this is how Celtic should set up against Champions League opposition, too, but Rodgers refused to submit to pragmatism in previous seasons with Celtic on that stage. The result was some heavy defeats and little in the way of victories.

The Old Firm, more than any other fixture, is simply about winning. At this fledgling stage of the season, Sunday’s fixture already has the feeling of a must-not-lose for both managers – who knows, maybe they’ll both get the luck of the draw this time.