Celtic didn't quite make it a magnificent seven victories on the spin when losing to AZ Alkmaar in Thursday's second leg - but qualification for the group stage and surviving the Dutch onslaught could easily boost confidence anyway.

Ange Postecoglou's side go to Ibrox on Sunday to take on a Rangers side who also failed to win away in their Europa League qualifying second leg - against Armenian side Alashkert - and have not enjoyed the most scintillating start to the season in general.

Here, The Celtic Way looks at last season’s champions, how they’re shaping up and what difficulties they could pose Postecoglou’s men on Sunday.

How have Rangers fared so far this season?

'Underwhelming' might be the best word to use to describe the start Steven Gerrard’s men have made to the campaign.

After winning the title by some margin last term and enjoying a half-decent pre-season, a flying start to their championship defence was a reasonable expectation.

As it is, competitive games have hit the Ibrox men like a train and – despite a 3-0 win against Livingston in their league opener – Rangers found themselves out of the Champions League and had their 40-game unbeaten league run ended in the space of a week at the beginning of August.

Celtic Way: Celtic v Rangers attacking radar from opening three league matchesCeltic v Rangers attacking radar from opening three league matches Celtic Way: Celtic v Rangers defensive radar from opening three league matchesCeltic v Rangers defensive radar from opening three league matches

A 5-0 League Cup win over second-tier Dunfermline Athletic followed while a 1-0 first-leg victory over Alashkert in the Europa League qualifiers did little to assuage the feeling this was a team struggling to find their rhythm.

The 4-2 league win over Ross County in Dingwall offered some encouragement in terms of goals and general attacking fluidity but, even then, WyScout noted that Malky Mackay’s side managed to emerge with a higher xG than the champions despite the final score, suggesting last season’s record-breaking defence may not have totally returned to retain their trophy.

Following that up with several missed chances en route to a 0-0 second leg against Alashkert – even though it was still enough to qualify for the group stage – will have left a feeling that the Rangers players must step up to the plate on Sunday.

How are Rangers expected to line up?

This is a tricky one given the Covid issues at Rangers in the past few days. Based on the team that faced Alashkert, there is still plenty of quality in the squad to field a decent starting XI.

That said, goalkeeper Allan McGregor was a constant thorn in Celtic’s side last season with some timely saves so his omission – while McCrorie is no mug – must be viewed as a boon for the Hoops.

By weight of sheer numbers, Tavernier missing out would also be a benefit. The Rangers captain may have only one goal and four assists in 22 appearances against Celtic, which by his own high standards is relatively unremarkable, but his delivery has been a nuisance for the Hoops to deal with several times and, as the skipper, his absence is bound to hurt the home side.

In his place would be Nathan Patterson, in a rare senior start. Despite his inclusion in the Scotland national squad for the European Championships, the highly-rated right-back has spent very little time on a football pitch as a senior player to say for sure how he will cope against this new-look Celtic side. The 19-year-old did, however, play in Rangers’ 2-0 derby win in the Scottish Cup back in April due to an injury to Tavernier and acquitted himself well enough on that occasion.

Celtic Way:

Calvin Bassey has played regularly at left-back so far this season but Borna Barisic’s return will likely still be viewed as an upgrade, even if it is slightly rushed. If Barisic is not ready the Rangers coaching staff will probably turn to Jack Simpson or, if they’re really not confident in that, Joe Aribo could even get the nod there.

Aribo played left-back for 15 minutes near the end of the 4-1 win over Celtic in May and has turned out in that position for the Ibrox side six times in total since February 2020, registering four wins, a draw and a loss (to St Mirren in the Scottish Cup).

READ MORE: High anxiety Celtic show Dutch courage but showdown with Rangers will be about who holds their nerve - Alison McConnell

Perhaps the biggest miss, certainly offensively, would be Kent. The winger has never quite figured out the secret to sustained, statistical brilliance in terms of goals and assists but he is always a challenge to defend against and has shown as much on numerous occasions against Celtic over the past few years.

Kent would have been Anthony Ralston’s greatest test of the season so far but, if he is to miss out, Aribo’s versatility could see him shifted wide with Scott Arfield as the most advanced central midfielder instead or even prompt a slight shape change to 4-3-1-2, which could see Roofe slot in alongside Morelos up top with Ianis Hagi in behind. If that happens don’t be surprised to see Morelos frequent wider areas, as happened when the sides met in May.

Celtic Way:

The other names missing from Thursday’s match – Wright and McLaughlin – are notable more for their roles as back-up players than anything else. This is the type of match they would likely have slotted into, in Wright’s case possibly still off the bench, in the absence of Kent and McGregor.

How will they try to hurt Celtic and what can the Hoops do in return?

That Rangers can field their first-choice midfield if they choose to on Sunday, regardless of Covid issues, is likely to play a big part in the way they set up.

Given their squad depth has been hurt as well as their starting XI, it would not be a surprise to see Rangers treat this in a manner similar to a European match despite it being at Ibrox in front of a partisan home crowd.

As such, the defence and more importantly the midfield trio could allow Celtic to have the ball in areas they will feel it is unlikely they can hurt them from. Coach Michael Beale’s philosophy of using the midfielders to shuttle across and press while closing gaps and passing lanes (in essence forcing a long, cross-field ball rather than the short, sharp, incisive passes Postecoglou favours) should not change whether there are enforced personnel alterations or not.

Celtic Way: Example of Rangers leaving a striker (Cedric Itten, centre) and winger (Ryan Kent, right) high up the field and launching a counter-attack against MalmoExample of Rangers leaving a striker (Cedric Itten, centre) and winger (Ryan Kent, right) high up the field and launching a counter-attack against Malmo

Likewise, Rangers’ tendency to have at least one winger and the striker stay high when defending may not change – but it is a high-risk, high-reward strategy given Celtic’s relentless attacking nature under Postecoglou has already led to issues defending against pacey wingers on the counter.

If Rangers do stick with defending how they wish to attack and leave a couple of players high while Celtic have the ball, the Hoops’ ability to stick to their pass-and-move gameplan will be critical in making those moments count in their favour and not bite them in the inevitable spaces they leave in the wide areas.

Up front, the movement and spatial awareness of Kyogo Furuhashi is sure to pose a problem for Patterson and Connor Goldson in the half-spaces while Liel Abada’s explosiveness has looked dangerous in most of the games he’s played so far too. Whether Odsonne Edouard starts or comes off the bench, the Frenchman has a solid record against the Ibrox men with seven goals and three assists in 13 appearances.

Celtic Way:

Behind them is where the magic happens though. Callum McGregor as the single pivot has been a revelation in Postecoglou’s system and he is integral to sustaining the tempo at which Celtic need to play for the manager’s style to work properly. The Rangers midfield could attempt to combat this by consistently putting a man on McGregor to make it more difficult for him, the defence and the goalkeeper to keep possession flowing.

Whether it’s David Turnbull and Tom Rogic or Ryan Christie, ahead of the captain there’s plenty of resourcefulness and a sometimes underappreciated tenacity too. That said, the Celtic midfield struggled to impose themselves on their in-form, physical AZ counterparts during Thursday’s second leg and that must not be allowed to happen on Sunday if Postecoglou’s men are to show the best version of themselves.

How well they free themselves up amid the Rangers midfield ‘shuttle defence’ could well determine if this is another 25-plus-shot, fire-at-will match for Celtic or more like a war of attrition.