A HANDFUL of the main stars and central protagonists to the Old Firm drama may well be absent at Parkhead next month. But the show, and the game, must go on.

Injuries, international call-ups and, these days at least, Covid-enforced absences are all part of the juggling act that managers and clubs must perfect.

It would be a shame for the spectacle and sense of occasion of the fixture if some of the top talents on either side were ruled out of what is building up to be a hugely significant showdown. But that is football.

The SPFL will find themselves in an almost impossible situation should a request arrive at Hampden for the derby to be delayed. That is a no-win scenario for Neil Doncaster and his board.

Lessons can be learned from England. The Premier League have got themselves in a right mess over the issue of postponing games and we can well do without the controversy and the consternation up here between now and the end of the campaign.

One of the drawbacks of having international players within a squad is that they will invariably be called up when the timing perhaps doesn’t suit their club or suffer an injury that then impacts those that pay their wages.

Both Rangers and Celtic would be within their rights, and within the rules, to make a request but the respective squads should be able to deal with a handful of absentees.

More pressingly, dates to play matches are already at a premium. If the February 2 fixture falls, the League will quickly run out of contingency plans and the fall-out from that self-made shambles will be even more vociferous than any outrage over international call-ups.

Giovanni van Bronckhorst dismissed talk of potentially postponing the derby this week. The selection issues are just as prevalent at Ibrox as they are across the city, but the Dutchman knows time is of the essence when it comes to completing the reworked top flight fixture card.

Scott Arfield’s retirement from service with Canada will ease the burden on the Rangers squad, but there are still fears over the availability of Kemar Roofe and new arrival James Sands ahead of the World Cup qualifiers next month. Alfredo Morelos will now miss out after he was selected for Colombia duty.

If Nigeria continue to progress at the African Cup of Nations, then Van Bronckhorst will be without his most influential and important performer at Parkhead. As the champions bid for Old Firm victory, Joe Aribo could have his sights set on a final berth.

Rangers still have the Scottish Cup tie with Stirling Albion and league fixtures at home to Livingston and away to Ross County to negotiate before the full focus is on Celtic.

Given the stakes and the issues, it is no surprise that the build-up has started already, however, as both camps gear up for what could be an electrifying evening under the lights.

“A lot can happen in that period,” Van Bronckhorst said ahead of the trip to face Aberdeen on Tuesday evening. “As far as I’m concerned, we’re not thinking about postponing the fixture.

“We know the international calendar is coming up, we might lose some players as well. But that’s the way it is, we have to take it as it comes.

“In the window, it’s not just one game, there are three games that have to be played in the window. That’s, I think, impossible because of course with bringing the break forward.

“The association also said it was difficult and that there was no space for postponing games so that will make it difficult as well. You never know how you have to prepare for games.

“Rangers had the first Old Firm, they missed their first and second goalie, they missed their coach, some other key players.

“You never know what the situation will be. As a coach, you have to handle every situation and that’s what I’m doing to do when the game comes.”

When Celtic gave their weighty voice and power to the suggestion that the SPFL should rearrange the winter break, they did so fully cognisant of the knock-on effect and the potential ramifications in terms of the fixture list.

That delay has already had its benefits as signings have been made and injuries have cleared. The break may not have been designed to boost Celtic, but there is no doubt they have taken full advantage of the situation and are reaping the rewards right now.

There was no desire to host Rangers in front of just 500 supporters, but the pay-off for that decision was that Ange Postecoglou could go into derby day without the likes of Kyogo Furuhashi, Tom Rogic and Cameron Carter-Vickers.

The messages from Postecoglou have not been quite as definitive as the one that Van Bronckhorst laid out on Monday. The Parkhead boss refused to rule out the possibility of a postponement, but the hint was strong enough that the game will go ahead.

“That falls into the department of stuff that I don’t really think about,” Postecoglou said last week. “It’s not a problem yet.

“I could spend hours thinking about it and what we were going to do and strategise and have meetings on it — then in the end find out that only one gets selected. I’m not going to worry about that.

“We’ll plan as we always have, that when we lose players to international duty we’ll crack on and play the games we need to play.

“At the moment, there’s no point even thinking about that. As it stands, none of the players have been selected, so until that happens we’ll look at it then.”

If squads are decimated by the impacts of Covid cases and close contact regulations, then clubs are within their rights to request postponements. Those circumstances are, after all, extraordinary and unfathomable, but such instances should be the exception rather than the rule.

Ultimately, only time will tell if Van Bronckhorst and Postecoglou alter their positions and pressure their respective boards to push for a postponement.

There will be winners and losers in terms of the selection issues. Come derby day, the only outcome that will matter is who collects a crucial three points and lands a blow in a title race that could well go down to the wire this term.

As it stands, then, the Old Firm should proceed as planned. The show should go on and new heroes or villains will emerge as Rangers and Celtic take centre stage once again.