Craig Fowler gives his take as Celtic cruise past Rangers into the Scottish Cup final.
This Rangers side just aren’t that good
It’s a truth we’ve known all along. Occasionally it’s been pushed into the background by talk of underachieving managers, change-resistant tactics, or new managers coming in. But every time there’s the slightest inclination that Rangers are about to turn a corner, they run into another brick wall. Put simply, there are too many B-quality players in a team severely lacking the kind of top-drawer talent their rivals have on show. The fact that Leigh Griffiths could replace Moussa Dembele and Celtic didn’t even skip a beat shows the gulf in quality between the two clubs. Football is a simple game, good players win matches, and Rangers don’t have enough of them at present to challenge Celtic.
Celtic showed their flexibility
What would have been particularly galling for the Rangers faithful, and particularly delightful for Celtic’s blissfully happy fans, was the fact that the champions barely left second gear and were still able to win so comfortably. A brief flurry followed Scott Sinclair’s penalty at the beginning of the second half, but after that Celtic took their foot off the gas. All this talk of Rangers’ improvement after the break should come with that caveat.
What the champions did show was an ability to go long and still punish their opponents. It’s not a style of play Brendan Rodgers is overly familiar with, he likes his team to pass around opponents, but with Rangers sitting deep and doing very little to press the play it was an effective way of creating chances. It also helps to have forwards with the ability of Dembele and Griffiths. The former took a tremendous touch to kill a 50-yard Mikael Lustig pass stone dead before cutting back for Callum McGregor to finish. While the latter, shortly after winning the penalty to give Celtic a 2-0 lead, took one great touch before firing an early shot after running on to a long ball from Craig Gordon. The substitute saw his effort saved by Wes Foderingham.
Scott Brown makes up for last year
The Scottish Cup semi-final of last season had to be among the lowest points in Scott Brown’s Celtic career. Nearing the end of what had been a disappointing season for the Celtic captain, he was outplayed by both Andy Halliday and Jason Holt in the Rangers midfield as Mark Warburton’s side eventually bettered the champions on penalties. At the time, all the talk was of how Brown was done as a Celtic quality player, though we all know what happened next.
Redemption had been achieved long before Sunday’s match. Brown has been excellent all season for a team who’re only six games away from becoming invincible. He has proved the doubters wrong. Still, he would have felt at least a modicum of self-satisfaction about his performance on Sunday. Back on the exact same stage, at the exact same ground against the exact same opponent, Brown was terrific. Not only was he able to bully opponents off the ball left, right and centre, his passing set the tempo for Celtic’s victory. Even Rangers boss Pedro Caixinha remarked how important the Celtic captain was to his side.
Caixinha’s message doesn’t register
Rangers’ first half display was baffling. They completely stood off Celtic and allowed them to do as they pleased until they got within 30 yards from goal, at which point they’d at least try to engage their opponents and win the ball. It resulted in a complete half of football where the only attacking thing of note from the underdogs was a long throw from Martyn Waghorn.
It seemed like the gameplan was to sit off Celtic, allow their centre-backs to have the ball and try to cover as many potential gaps in defence as possible. Presumably, the attacking strategy would focus on counter-attacks or either Waghorn or Joe Garner managing to hold up long-balls, neither of which occurred. Instead, Caixinha revealed the plan was for his side to press Celtic high up the park, which is what the Graeme Murty-led Rangers managed to do so effectively in the last game between the sides.
Even the Portuguese coach struggled to explain what happened, though one thing is for certain: the Rangers players did not carry out his instructions on the field.
McGregor comes through in the clutch
The 23-year-old was handed a start ahead of Tom Rogic, who began his first game of 2017 seven days earlier following injury. And he vindicated Brendan Rodgers’ faith when he stroked home an 11th-minute opener, effectively passing the ball into the net from 20 yards. It was exactly the sort of composure on the big occasion that Rodgers has been striving to instil in his team, and showed the improvement in McGregor, who notably fluffed a big chance at the end of Celtic’s 1-1 draw with Borussia Monchengladbach earlier in the season.
It’s taken Celtic 18 months and two managers, but they finally seem to have realised that McGregor is a better option than Nir Bitton. It’ll now be interesting to see if Gordon Strachan thinks along similar lines when it comes time to pick the next Scotland squad.