With a nine-point gap at the top of the Premiership table with 12 league games and a maximum of four cup games remaining, it is possible that 25 per cent of those matches will be derbies.

First up is the League Cup final, so where do both clubs sit heading into the match relative to their season-wide and more recent performance trends? 

The performance scorecard for the season to date reflects the nine-point gap, with Celtic having maintained a significant advantage across a wide breadth of performance metrics.

To keep things simple to start, this expected goals-focused radar displays the Parkhead side's relative dominance (with the exception of penalties):

It is not worth labouring the point by showing a wide berth of underlying metrics, as the first radar encapsulates things well. However, as reviewed in last week’s column, there has been some nuance to Ange Postecoglou's men's dominance since returning from the World Cup.

In contrast to the relative stability at the Hoops this season, Rangers’ managerial change in time for the post-World Cup period affords a natural breaking point for analysing their performances, as well as both clubs since the mid-December return. 

Overall, there has been a very slight slide in underlying xG-related metrics under Michael Beale’s tenure compared to his predecessor’s 15 league games, but goal scoring and prevention have both improved, and results have matched Celtic’s over the period. However, it could be argued that the shifts have been too small to draw any material conclusions

If we compare the two rivals over the 11 league games since the World Cup, an interesting picture begins to emerge:

Despite the well-earned reputation of a relentless attacking side, it is in the defensive phase of play in which Celtic have stood out relative to Beale’s Rangers. For example, limiting opposition to just 0.28 xG from open play, and 0.07 xG per shot is ridiculous dominance.

However, what the radar also shows is the dramatic degree to which the Parkhead side have been scoring at a rate well above what xG would suggest, even when accounting for penalties. From an attacking perspective, the two sides have been relatively close, even when types of shots are broken out:

Given the limited sample of 11 games, all but the counter-attacking shots metric are extremely close in attack. At the same time, the Hoops' defensive superiority was once again evident via the 100th percentile ranking for clear shots and open play shots conceded to opponents.

With the defending-related metrics suggesting the greatest disparity, here is a deeper dive into pressing and style of play metrics:

Here again we see Postecoglou's men's overwhelming dominance having manifested in 74 per cent average possession over the 11 games. To place that into some context, the 2016-17 invincible Celtic side averaged 69 per cent.

It is a statistic worth drawing attention to because it impacts the relative dearth of pressing actions required by the team. For example, the volume of Celtic pressures ranked in just the second percentile but that was largely a product of how little the Parkhead side had to defend and press rather than a gauge of intensity. 

The aggression metric serves to try to account for this issue, as it measures the number of passes received by opponents that are tackled, fouled or pressured within two seconds of receipt. The Hoops have been more efficient with their defensive aggression and able to harness the relatively small bursts required given how little opposing teams have had the ball.

Celtic Way:

The dynamics evident over the 11 games were also reflected in the January 2 derby, despite the possession statistics being far less severe with 59 per cent for Celtic vs 41 per cent for Rangers.

For example, Postecoglou's men were able to regain the ball 27 times on 137 pressures, whereas Rangers had 28 but required 179 to do so. Despite the game at Ibrox, the non-penalty xG was effectively a draw at 1.02 vs 1.05.

Of course a single game, let alone a huge cup final, introduces a significant amount of potential variance such as controversial refereeing decisions, the impact of individual player errors and so on.

The relative play at the keeper position can be material, as Celtic enjoyed with Fraser Forster in the December 2019 League Cup final. If overall performance levels so far this season are any indication, the Parkhead side appears more likely to be the one with the more consistent keeper play:

One aspect of play in which Rangers keeper Allan McGregor has struggled in particular has been in dealing with aerial crosses, which may make Celtic’s approach to corners and other set-pieces of note given the relative lack of aerial crossing by the Hoops in recent months. 

All of these relative strengths and weaknesses present a fascinating set of questions relative to the managerial game of chess for the upcoming final.

For example, there is significant evidence of Celtic being vulnerable to an aggressive high press but Rangers have displayed vulnerability in defence when asked to play a high line versus higher-quality opponents and have an aged keeper who is lacking in mobility. Celtic have the attacking weapons - in Kyogo Furuhashi and Daizen Maeda - to get in behind should Rangers go that route.

READ MORE: Celtic’s one recent downward trend — and why it only reinforces SPFL dominance

On the flip side, the champions have displayed some issues with breaking down narrowly-packed and well-organised defensive blocks in recent months. The relative lack of quality and athleticism of most domestic opponents has more often than not resulted in potential counter-attacks stalling without any threat on Joe Hart’s goal. 

In contrast, during Beale’s prior tenure as an assistant and the January derby, his Rangers sides have shown an ability to defend reasonably well in a narrow block while also having the intersection of speed and skill in players such as Ryan Kent, Malik Tillman and now Nicolas Raskin to present Celtic with challenges in defending transitions; an area of particular vulnerability for the Parkhead side over the last two European campaigns. 

Given the dominance Celtic continue to display domestically, the nine-point gap should hopefully be more than sufficient to secure the league title and the associated automatic entry to another Champions League group stages next season.

With it being the first of just four competitive games against a fellow European-quality opponent over the next six months, Sunday’s cup final presents an important test of Celtic’s ability to translate exceptional domestic dominance to a higher level.