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Celtic 3 - 0 Rangers: Gary Hooper strikes leave Rangers trailing

Now eight points clear at the top of the Scottish Premier League, Celtic strengthened their status as pace-setters yesterday as Rangers were left in their wake. It not as if the well-beaten visitors have seen the back of their rivals either.

Rangers return here next week in the Scottish Cup before the Old Firm play out the League Cup final and what could prove the decisive act in the title narrative at Ibrox after the league split.

There was a menace in the air at Celtic Park yesterday, heightened by El Hadji Diouf's first appearance at the ground since a spitting incident here back in 2003 while a Liverpool player. The threat to Rangers' hopes on the field was just as easy to pinpoint. Gary Hooper's fleet-footed qualities caused the visitors' rearguard no end of problems and his first-half brace left Walter Smith's side with simply too much to do after the interval.

Rangers did improve in the opening stages of the second half but Kris Commons' drive, which wrong-footed Allan McGregor, deflated them to the point where they became too ragged to pose the hosts any further problems.

Rangers simply joined the cast-list of sides to have wilted when exposed to the speed and skill of the Celtic forwards, with both Hooper and Commons again outstanding. Indeed, they should have known what to expect. Rangers were given a taste of it at Ibrox in the Scottish Cup earlier this month.

The rousing nature of this performance proved so infectious that it had some unlikely candidates - many seated in the directors' box - mouthing the words to the Depeche Mode song Just Can't Get Enough, the currently in-vogue Celtic fans' anthem. For the fourth league match in succession Celtic scored three or more goals and this was even after Neil Lennon had left top goalscorer Anthony Stokes on the bench. They now have a goal difference advantage of plus 14 over their Ibrox rivals.

By the time Stokes arrived on the pitch, in the 80th minute, Hooper and his accomplice Commons had wreaked havoc. The damage this had done to Rangers' title ambitions will be assessed over the weeks to come but from the glee apparent inside Celtic Park, there is a belief that this result has inflicted a possibly fatal wound on the champions.

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A lob attempt from Diouf and a header which was sent wide by Nikica Jelavic might have brought the visitors' back into the game at the start of the second half.

But Rangers had been left devastated by two lightning breaks from Celtic. Hooper was on the end of both flowing moves, although, for the first, after just 17 minutes, he had to employ the trickery which has seen him become such a firm favourite of the home supporters.

Commons' quick ball into the feet of Hooper had created an opening but the striker's fine first touch took him away from David Weir. There was still work to be done as Allan McGregor came out to narrow the angle, with Hooper slipping the ball between the goalkeeper's legs.

The goal floored Rangers. The visitors had made a solid enough start, building their annex on a determination to cut off the supply to Celtic's strikers. The 19-year-old Kyle Bartley had been central to this aim although his effectiveness was impeded by a yellow card after just three minutes, for a foul on Scott Brown.

The on-loan Arsenal player had also come off second best in two early aerial challenges with Georgios Samaras. If Bartley's inclusion was Smith's attempt to out-fox Celtic then the Greek striker's return to the side was Lennon's own attempt to be proactive. Samaras had shown enough in the 2-0 win at Ibrox on 2 January to make his recall seem like the most perfect sense. He was lavishly praised by Lennon afterwards, having helped set up Celtic's second. He was also able to drop back and hold the ball up, allowing his side time to re-group.

It gave them a platform on which to launch flashing attacks. Emilio Izaguirre began the move from which the second goal was sourced, after 28 minutes. He exchanged passes with Samaras, taking the return pass in his stride having been played onside by Weir. Hooper's run to the back post had been noted by the Honduran, whose ball was steered in by the irrepressible striker.

Rangers were aggrieved at the near-side assistant referee's flag having remained lowered, and Diouf and Beram Kayal were booked after a flare-up. But the Ibrox side had already had a lucky escape when the same flag stayed down after Sasa Papac handled a flick from Hooper, following Izaguirre's long ball.

Rangers' attacking intentions had been compromised by the obviously hampered Steven Naismith, who has been bothered by a hamstring strain in recent weeks. He was clearly impaired as he ran and Smith had no option but to take him off at half-time. Kyle Laffery took Naismith's place but the tide would not turn. Papac headed a Brown header off the line after McGregor had made Samaras' cross more potent by clawing it out to the edge of the six yard box.

For Rangers, Diouf was a stand-out. He refused to let the jeers of the Celtic fans inhibit him and demanded the ball constantly. Each time he took a corner kick a swarm of policemen and women emerged from the tunnels in an attempt to reduce the likelihood of an attack on the player, whose industrious afternoon was finally halted by Smith's decision to replace him with David Healy after 66 minutes.

The Celtic fans took great delight in acknowledging this swap and then were erupting with joy again just two minutes later, as the home side scored a third. Commons got the goal which his endeavours deserved, switching the ball from his left foot and onto his right as he bore down on Bougherra. This piece of trickery was nothing when compared to the swerve he managed to place on the ball as he shot from just outside the box.

McGregor's attempt to read its flight led to him going first to his right and then, belatedly, to his left, although the ball was already well on its way to the back of the net. Rangers had been fortunate to remain with 11 men on the park after Bougherra first fouled Samaras and then sarcastically applauded the referee's decision to penalise him. When Iain Brines booked him for this response, Bougherra simply applauded him again. He benefited from Brines' generosity and was still there to endure the ovation from the Celtic fans at the end.

Celtic: Forster, Wilson, Majstorovic, Mulgrew, Izaguirre, Brown, Kayal (Ki 60), Ledley, Commons (Forrest 82), Samaras, Hooper (Stokes 85). Subs not used: Zaluska, Juarez, McCourt, Rogne.

Rangers: McGregor, Whittaker, Weir, Bougherra, Papac, Davis, Diouf (Healy 68), Bartley, Edu, Naismith (Lafferty 46), Jelavic. Subs not used: Alexander, Fleck, Foster, Weiss, Hutton.

 
 
 

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