CELTIC'S first victory over Rangers for 19 months last night ended in ugly scenes at full time, with pockets of confrontation breaking out among players as the teams headed towards the tunnel in the wake of a sensational match which was settled deep into injury time by the head of Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink.
The 2-1 win kept alive Celtic's hopes of staging a remarkable comeback and defending their SPL title against all the odds.
The outcome of the post-match ruckus was the strong possibility that Rangers central defender David Weir and his Celtic counterpart, Gary Caldwell, will be suspended by the SFA.
Both players, who appeared to take a swing at each other while, elsewhere, Barry Ferguson and Stephen McManus – the respective team captains – and Nacho Novo and Aiden McGeady also squared up, were summoned to referee Kenny Clark's room afterwards to be informed that they would be reported.
On a very eventful night, Weir's partner in the centre of the Ibrox defence, Carlos Cuellar, was sent off during the match and will certainly miss the next meeting with Celtic.
The Spaniard kept Shunsuke Nakamura's scoring drive out of the net with his hands, conceding a penalty kick and drawing an automatic red card from referee Clark. His relief at seeing his goalkeeper, Allan McGregor, save the attempted conversion by Celtic striker Scott McDonald, would turn to exasperation when Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink scored Celtic's winning goal in the fourth minute of stoppage time.
Walter Smith, the Rangers manager, lost his unbeaten record in the series since his return to Ibrox 15 months ago, and conceded that Celtic had been the better team during a first half in which Nakamura gave Gordon Strachan's side the lead with a brilliant 30-yard drive that swerved violently on its way past McGregor.
Smith said that Weir and Caldwell had been called to the referee's room and that they would be reported. "I didn't see what happened," said the Rangers manager, one of the few from who such a comment represents a legitimate excuse. "I did what I always do, I shook hands and immediately went up the tunnel. Actually, I went to talk to the referee after the match – about another matter, not anything that happened between players – and he refused to see me."
Smith then left the media centre and returned a few minutes later to reveal that he had learned of the players' summons to Clark. It proved to be a very bad night for Smith, who not only suffered the equivalent of two orderings-off, but lost his goalkeeper, McGregor, to injury 12 minutes from the end.
It was after McGregor had left that Vennegoor of Hesselink headed the winner, invalidating the equaliser delivered by the Rangers substitute Novo, ten minutes into the second half. As well as McGregor, midfielder Lee McCulloch was a casualty, sustaining damage to a knee.
Celtic's victory reduced Rangers' lead at the top of the Premier League to a single point, although the Ibrox side have played two matches fewer.
It was Rangers' first league defeat since they were beaten by Dundee United last October and Smith admitted that having so many outstanding fixtures could be significant, "depending on how the SPL rules on how we are to play those remaining fixtures." Still involved in the Scottish Cup and the Uefa Cup, Rangers face the possibility of playing their last four league fixtures in eight days next month.
Strachan, meanwhile, was clearly elated at securing the victory he believed should have been his team's on the recent visit to Ibrox, when they lost 1-0 after being the better team in the first half. "Of course, it's great to win the match, but I don't feel any different about my players or their performance. The performance was no different from those we gave against Motherwell and Aberdeen, two games we lost. The only difference was that, this time, we scored goals. Goals change things, there's no doubt about that.
"I didn't find out anything about my players, in terms of character or spirit, that I didn't already know. What I do know is that we are very happy to have beaten a Rangers team who defended very well with ten men."
Celtic grab title race lifeline in Old Firm epic
Van Hennegoor of Hessilink (90+3)
LIKE any overdue arrival, Celtic's first victory over Rangers since Walter Smith's return to Ibrox would be all the sweeter for those who had to endure the wait. It would be an exaggeration to claim that Gordon Strachan and his players were given mass absolution for previous failures, but the raucous acclaim at the end from the home support testified to a quite extraordinary night.
Having taken the lead with Shunsuke Nakamura's brilliant strike and conceded the equaliser to substitute Nacho Novo in the second half, Celtic then failed to convert a penalty kick – for the concession of which Carlos Cuellar was sent off – and required a winner from Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink in the fourth minute of stoppage time.
The big Dutchman atoned for earlier profligacy by nodding Scott McDonald's header over the line to give the home side a result that keeps them involved in the title race and which was deserved on their general superiority through the 90-plus minutes.
That goal from Nakamura not only gave Celtic the lead in the fixture for the first time since Thomas Gravesen had struck in September 2006, but opened up a match in which Rangers had seemed intent on keeping closed.
Georgios Samaras's disparaging remarks about the Ibrox side's approach may have caused a certain sourness among the visitors' fans, but, by retreating into defence from the start and relying on counter-thrusts by the lone forward, Jean-Claude Darcheville, Rangers seemed to be doing their best to vindicate the Greek striker's comments.
Of course, Celtic deserve much of the credit for their relentless commitment to going forward, maintaining a high tempo and often playing accurate passes that caused uncertainty in the Rangers defence. But, until Nakamura's extraordinary finish, the visitors' emphasis on defence had appeared to be largely premeditated.
It was not until after they had fallen behind, for example, that they broke with even the semblance of a threat into Celtic territory, but when Steve Davis, carrying the ball down the right, looked infield, there was no teammate in view. He had to play the ball back to Barry Ferguson, who then had to do the same to find Christian Dailly, by which time the home defenders had gathered to put an end to the momentum.
Dailly had been Rangers' saviour on one of a series of scares, heading out from under the crossbar after Gary Caldwell had met Barry Robson's corner kick from the right at the far post and headed from an acute angle past Allan McGregor.
That had come after Vennegoor of Hesselink had squandered a wonderful opportunity, supplied by Nakamura. The midfielder played a pass through the middle of the Rangers defence that allowed the towering striker, who had timed his run to remain clearly onside, to move unchallenged towards McGregor.
But he seemed to hesitate, perhaps anticipating a linesman's flag which he should have known could not have been raised. By the time he finally took possession, McGregor was almost on top of him, the Dutchman simply driving the ball against the goalkeeper's legs.
Nobody, however, could have done anything to prevent the damage inflicted by Nakamura. Taking possession of a short chip from Andreas Hinkel just inside his own half of the field, the Japanese midfielder took a few strides forward and, from around 35 yards, hit what is know in golf as a power fade, the ball leaving his left foot and sliding far to the right of McGregor.
It was a moment about which Strachan, his players and their supporters must have fantasised, at last presenting Rangers with a test to which they had become unaccustomed through the previous 19 months. The immediate response was not impressive, hardly surprising considering the hold the home players had put on the game.
Reversing well-established patterns takes time and Rangers would be relieved to reach the sanctuary of the dressing-room at half-time, giving them an opportunity to become re-orientated. It was an indicator of Smith's anxiety that he should choose to alter his personnel and his formation at the very start of the second half. In such circumstances, managers tend to wait ten or 15 minutes. But, apart from the need of a more significant presence in Celtic's half, there was the possibility of Kirk Broadfoot, already cautioned as he became more frustrated with McGeady's tormenting runs, heading for further trouble.
The Rangers full-back had even seemed to square up to spectators in his vicinity and it was no surprise when Smith replaced him with Novo, moving Dailly to right-back in a re-formed 4-4-2. Even Smith could surely not have imagined the little Spaniard would, within ten minutes of taking the field, vindicate his manager in the most rewarding way possible.
Some Celtic players appeared to be still looking for a free-kick Kenny Clark had refused a few second earlier as Novo jumped to win a header out on the right. He knocked the ball to Steven Whittaker, who headed it back into space as the home substitute, Mark Wilson – on for the limping Lee Naylor at the break – seemed transfixed. Novo was left to move in from the right untracked and drive the ball low into the far corner past Artur Boruc from a difficult angle.
If the home support began to experience the sinking feeling then that the Rangers curse was still at work, they would become unshakeably convinced by the events of 15 minutes later. Not only did Rangers lose Cuellar to a red card, but, in the process, conceded the penalty that should have restored Celtic's lead.
It was from another piece of excellent work by Nakamura – the midfielder holding the ball on the right and suddenly swivelling to send his drive towards the roof of the net – that the Spanish defender was forced to prevent the goal with a goalkeeper's save.
The ordering-off was automatic, but McDonald's conversion was anything but. The little striker stood with his back on McGregor before turning to make his run. His shot, low to the goalkeeper's left, was not firmly enough struck and McGregor took full advantage of his chance, making the save near the post. The goalkeeper, who had already received treatment for an injury, then had to be replaced by Neil Alexander just eight minutes later.
Despite having a one-man advantage and facing a reserve goalkeeper, Celtic toiled to find an opening in the closing stages – until Vennegoor of Hesselink brought this epic encounter to a dramatic conclusion.
Celtic: Boruc, Hinkel, Caldwell, McManus, Naylor (Wilson 46), Nakamura, Hartley, Robson (Samaras 75), McGeady, McDonald, Vennegoor of Hesselink. Subs not used: Mark Brown, McGowan, Sno, Donati, Balde. Booked: Hartley, Vennegoor of Hesselink.
Rangers: McGregor (Alexander 77), Broadfoot (Novo 46), Cuellar, Weir, Papac, Dailly, Whittaker, Ferguson, Davis, McCulloch, Darcheville (Cousin 83). Subs not used: Boyd, Naismith, Furman, McMillan. Sent off: Cuellar (70). Booked: Broadfoot, Naismith, Weir.
First minute: Barry Robson charges in on Christian Dailly and appears to elbow the Rangers man but gets away without a booking.
10: First big chance as Shunsuke Nakamura releases Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink, who has the ball blocked at his feet by Allan McGregor.
19: Superb corner from Robson on the right is headed down at the far post and across goal by Gary Caldwell.
20: CELTIC 1 RANGERS 0 Nakamura produces a magical strike, a swerving 25-yard blast into the left corner.
35: Scott McDonald's cross is miscued and McGregor has to make a reflex save.
40: Jean-Claude Darcheville fires over from outside the area.
44: Darcheville has Rangers' best chance of the half but his scuffed shot clips off Stephen McManus for a corner.
50: McDonald rifles high and wide from 20 yards after a spell of impressive Celtic possession.
51: Vennegoor of Hesselink is booked for hacking down substitute Nacho Novo.
55: CELTIC 1 RANGERS 1 Super equaliser from the visitors. Novo finds space on the right and lashes a superb angled finish past Artur Boruc.
63: Andreas Hinkel's headed pass from the right is nodded wide by Vennegoor of Hesselink.
66: Hinkel's square pass to the edge of the area is met by Robson's firm shot, which Carlos Cuellar bravely blocks.
70: Penalty to Celtic and red card for Cuellar as the Spaniard turns Nakamura's shot off the line with his hand. McGregor, limping after appearing to damage his ankle earlier in the half, produces a full-stretch save down to his left from McDonald's spot-kick.
72: McDonald heads over the bar from Aiden McGeady's cross.
77: Injured McGregor is replaced by Neil Alexander.
85: Big chance for Celtic substitute Georgios Samaras, who cannot make decent contact with McGeady's cross.
90: CELTIC 2 RANGERS 1 In the third minute of stoppage-time, Vennegoor of Hesselink comes up with the winner. McDonald heads the ball across goal and the big Dutchman nods home from close range.
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