Celtic survive scare to reassert Old Firm order
Rangers’ 15-month unbeaten home record was ended by the most predictable opponents, but only after an unforeseen start in which Mark Warburton’s players led through an early strike by Kenny Miller.
Despite impressive domination of most of the first half, they were brought back to parity when Moussa Dembélé netted his 14th goal of the season shortly before the break and Celtic secured the extension of their undefeated sequence of domestic games to 24 when Scott Sinclair snatched the winner in the 65th minute.
The first half was convulsive and compelling in the fury of combat, hence the six minutes of added time before the participants were permitted the sanctuary of the interval. Celtic’s regal procession through the domestic schedule had set the tone of some of their statements in the run-up to this encounter to the effect that even a first defeat of the campaign would be inconsequential in the greater scheme of progress under Brendan Rodgers. That air of casual disdain was belied by the prolongation of their customary huddle before kick-off, which indicated that they had been made aware that the occasion was about to demand a singular effort. “It was a brilliant result for us,” Rodgers said. “We thoroughly deserved the win. It was a real great advert for Scottish football.”
Since Rangers went into financial meltdown in the summer of 2012 there had been four collisions of these archfoes, but not at Ibrox. Any notion that this would resemble Celtic’s habitual amble around other outposts of the Scottish Premiership evaporated amid the exchange of pre-match courtesies. The contending supports were at each other’s throats in song, of course, but an additionally rancorous note was sounded during the observation of the silence in commemoration of the 66 spectators who died in the Ibrox disaster at the end of the equivalent fixture in 1971.
One occupant of the stand allotted to the visiting support bawled the name of Bobby Sands, the IRA hunger striker. He was shushed by many of those around him, but his heckle triggered a barrage of furious howls from the home fans, all of which imbued the ritual with a crass tone.
The arena was rocking with legitimate noise as the Celtic players immersed themselves in their huddle for longer than usual.
When they did the same in the Scottish League Cup final in October, it seemed to have the effect of anaesthetising Aberdeen, whose contribution to the proceedings was quiescent, to say the least. This time, it was Celtic who looked befuddled as Rangers, perhaps maddened by relentless reminders of their inferiority in every area of the field, took the game to the champions with palpable passion. Although without one of their principal drivers because of an injury to their captain, Lee Wallace, Warburton’s players generated an immediate momentum that forced Erik Sviatchenko into a nervy error when he passed straight to Barry McKay, who bolted into the Celtic box for a cutback that Jason Holt drove off Stuart Armstrong to force the first corner after 25 seconds.
It came to nothing, but Celtic had been served notice of an intent that took more substantial form in the 12th minute. Again Sviatchenko was rushed into uncharacteristic carelessness, which allowed Josh Windass to feed James Tavernier for a fiercely driven cross into the goalmouth where it was steered across the line by Miller for his fifth goal of the season.
The moment was significant, being the first time Rangers had led in 192 minutes of football against Celtic under Rodgers.
Celtic came close to falling further behind when Tavernier found Martyn Waghorn – replacement for the injured Joe Garner – for a first-time effort that Craig Gordon blocked instinctively.
Celtic took this as their cue to produce their first tangible menace as Sinclair adeptly stayed onside on the counter to beat Wes Foderingham with a low effort that struck the far post. Their frustration, though, was alleviated six minutes before the break when Rangers’ familiar defensive frailty was exposed by a Sinclair corner that found Dembélé unmarked for a left-foot drive into the roof of the net.
The league leaders emerged for the restart clearly instructed to avoid any repeat of their first-half torpor and they responded with pressure that came close to being graced by a second for Dembélé, when the French forward struck a shot into the ground and off the crossbar.
Rangers were also to see an attempt ricochet off the goal frame when Andy Halliday found Miller and the veteran forward rolled the ball beyond Gordon but off the base of the far post.
By that time, Celtic’s fortunes had assumed more familiar form thanks to Sinclair, who netted the winner from a flowing move in which Stuart Armstrong shuttled the ball to him after a clever reverse pass from Patrick Roberts. Celtic fans cavorted but the most clinical reaction came from the bookmakers, who cut Celtic’s odds on an unbeaten domestic season to 5-2.
Warburton insisted his focus was solely on his team after Celtic went 19 points clear at the top. “I’m not worried,” he said. “We want to take this club as high as we possibly can.”
Winning mentality: Scott Sinclair hits the goal that decided a raucous Old Firm derby at Ibrox and put Celtic 19 points clear at the top of the Scottish Premiership yesterday