The challenge is plain enough for Tony Mowbray. He finds himself suddenly exposed, so that when Rangers come to Parkhead today, the Celtic manager must find a way to reassert some old competitive values. But then he will have known that this moment would arrive; it is the nature of the job in this most fractured of football cities.
For all that he brought a sense of idealism to the role when he replaced Gordon Strachan last summer, so much of Mowbray's principled approached has been undermined by the flaws of his squad. He has sought to construct a side that places a lasting faith in the worth of playing the game a certain way: with flair, a spirit of ambition, the most intrepid of hearts. We might even say that this style is most clearly sketched in the purity of the manager's imagination.
But Celtic have dominated games only to be betrayed by their limitations. They create a bounty of chances in games but do not score enough goals, and the defence is a vague line of uncertainty. And here, in Glasgow, where everything is considered a contrast to one side of the city or the other, there is little room for patience.
Having been subdued by the demands of the Champions' League and lost something of their sense of purpose, Rangers have reimagined themselves. They have won six consecutive league games – scoring 26 goals, conceding only four – and carry a seven-point lead into today's Old Firm encounter. Celtic have a game in hand but the statistics are only a version of something, and there is a psychological significance to this meeting.
A Rangers victory, or even a draw, would feel like a small statement of dominance, a declaration that will live beyond the final whistle. Only a Celtic win would begin to restore the balance between the old rivals. And we come back to that contrast again, of Mowbray's ambition to create something virtuous, and Walter Smith's pragmatism. The Rangers manager's work is not shaped by a set of beliefs about how the game is played, merely the imperative of finding a way to win.
"I can't tell you what Walter's philosophies are," Mowbray says. "I don't know how they will play, but we will play the game we play, which is on the front foot. [We will] be aware of what their strengths are, but [we will] play to our strengths. Otherwise, you lose focus on what you're trying to do."
There is a wariness about Mowbray, as criticism about his team has been occasionally blunt, but there is also a firm conviction. He is not under pressure yet, and his team are capable of making a stand against Rangers. But he will have to believe that his players can bring the best of themselves, and the rest – the doubts and anxieties – will be a little less prominent.
"You have to trust the team every game you play," he says. "I am sure we will have a very positive performance. But if the worst came to the worst and we don't win, we can keep going to try to find the consistency to win points."
Mowbray's optimism is vital, to his team and to himself.Reuse content