Celtic trio make Brendan Rodgers' team a different animal and I can't see Rangers taming them – Chris Sutton

Callum McGregor. Matt O’Riley. Reo Hatate. It’s going to take more than three players for Celtic to get the job done against Rangers. But, if the trio fire, the title will belong to Brendan Rodgers.

Celtic have been patchy this season, no question. But it is striking that McGregor, O’Riley and Hatate have barely started any games together. If they have, they’ve not always been at full pelt due to returning from injury lay-offs. Statistics are not always my strongest suit, but going through the lists, I can see that Celtic’s best midfield trio have started just six Premiership games together out of the 35 played this season.

Rodgers’ team has won the lot. Against Livingston, Motherwell, Kilmarnock and Hearts last autumn and Dundee and Hearts again in the past fortnight. I’d argue the two displays against Hearts in that sequence were amongst the best of the season and it is obvious that Celtic are a different animal when these boys are working in unison.

Fair enough, Paulo Bernardo had a big influence on the New Year game with his performance and goal in the 2-1 win for Rodgers’ team. But it remains fairly impressive that Celtic have managed to win two of the Old Firm games this season and draw the other without having their first-pick midfield as a combined starting unit.

They are proven players, with top-class ability and, crucially, an ability to handle the pressure situation they will face tomorrow and deliver on the stage.

Go back to their first one as a trio just over two years ago when McGregor was running around wearing a face mask to protect a fractured cheekbone. The captain bossed the game, Hatate hit two goals on his Old Firm debut and O’Riley was outstanding as Ange Postecoglou’s side blew Rangers away. The new boys took to it like ducks to water.

Rodgers will be licking his lips at the prospect of these three taking control of proceedings on Saturday. McGregor’s fitness is massive. I have to say that he was looking off his best upon return from the achilles injury last month.

The normal stealth was missing. He looked leggy and not as crisp in his work as you associate with him. I could understand getting him on the park because, as an influence, no-one is bigger within the squad. He is the leader and his presence is important.

But McGregor’s ability stands him out. He completely dominated the first Old Firm game of the season and did much the same in December. The mistake at Ibrox which led to Abdallah Sima’s goal in the 3-3 draw was down to rust and lack of sharpness, but he looked more like himself last weekend against Hearts.

Much was made of the 60-yard trackback to win a tackle, but there were signs of the control back in his game. O’Riley looked magnificent. As I spoke about in my last column, his performances leading up to the New Year were Player of the Year material.

Matt O'Riley celebrates -Credit:SNS Group
Matt O'Riley celebrates -Credit:SNS Group

The interest from Atletico Madrid saw him drop off a little after the winter break, but not much. It was just compared to his high standards. But O’Riley looked every inch a class act against Hearts and it was as if having McGregor and Hatate beside him again freed him up. In those six games together that I mentioned earlier, O’Riley has scored four goals and made a few more.

Hatate is just a fabulous talent. He’s been a massive miss for Celtic this season during his spells out injured. He keeps the ball so well, he can affect the tempo of a game and he can spot a killer pass as well as put the ball in the net. Durability is key. He flagged at Ibrox due to fitness and so did Celtic as he came off.

Hatate needs to be on it for 90 minutes, but, if so, he’ll take some containing and you only had to look at the match against Hearts six days ago to see the effect these midfield boys can have on Kyogo Furuhashi.

Naturally, there has been a tendency to look at the wide players when dissecting the Japanese striker’s form this term and the fact his numbers are down when it comes to goals.

But boys like Hatate and O’Riley are on his wavelength. Look at the Champions League goals the Danish international made for Kyogo with vision to see and ability to play the pass. O’Riley was at it again last Saturday with a brilliant ball over the top for Kyogo to volley into the net and Hatate had already picked him out for his first with a clever lob back into his path which let his compatriot head the opener.

Rodgers needs all departments working. The defence has to be solid, Joe Hart be sound and the wide boys clinical when opportunities arise. However, midfield is where the match could be won and lost. Rangers need to stop Celtic playing out from the back and through them.

Injuries happen. It’s part of the game. But I’m pretty certain that, if a fully tuned-up McGregor, O’Riley and Hatate had been able to start together for even half of the Premiership matches so far, Celtic would have the title in the bag. It didn’t happen, so, as it stands, it is still on the line. But McGregor, O’Riley and Hatate have the opportunity to put it to bed now. And I suspect it’ll take a big Rangers display to stop them.