When Rangers last came to Celtic Park they were baited by a large banner featuring the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, with one of the malevolent figures memorably re-cast as Hector the taxman.
Things were slightly less portentous on their return, four years later. Rangers were put to the sword by a softly-spoken Frenchman called Moussa Dembele instead. The striker wrought destruction on the visitors courtesy of a perfect hat-trick.
By the end, with 5ft 9in midfielder Joey Barton doing his best to plug gaps, the aforementioned four horsemen of the Apocalypse could have ridden in formation through the centre of the Rangers defence.
Some hat-tricks, while clearly notable achievements in themselves, are simply not as good as others. Take Robert Snodgrass’ treble for Scotland against Malta eight days ago.
No-one should scoff at a hat-trick scored in the international arena. But surely even Snodgrass will admit his three-goal return, comprising a cross-cum-shot, penalty and a tap-in, was lacking somewhat in quality.
Not so with Dembele on Saturday. His hat-trick was a masterpiece of the sort. Since he used his head as well as both his feet, it satisfied the ‘perfect hat-trick’ criteria.
What should also to be factored in are the circumstances. It was his first experience of an Old Firm encounter and only his second league start. He is also still only 20.
Nevertheless, Dembele is clearly rated by Brendan Rodgers and was handed the responsibility of replacing the in-form Leigh Griffiths, whose failure to recover from a hamstring strain was interpreted by nearly everyone as being a huge blow for Celtic.
Now these same people are wondering how Griffiths expects to get back into the team. Another good performances from Dembele tomorrow night in the less high-octane environment of the Nou Camp could make things tricky for Griffiths, who has already been ruled out of the Champions League clash against Barcelona.
Dembele’s well-placed header from Scott Sinclair’s corner got Celtic up and running after a fairly balanced opening. Not that the striker deserves complete credit; some abject defending from Rangers, setting the tone for the afternoon, allowed him to break free on the edge of the six-yard box to put Celtic ahead after 32 minutes.
His second goal ten minutes later came via Nir Bitton’s pass and provided the first sign it was not set to be Philipe Senderos’ afternoon.
Dembele’s drag back foxed the Swiss defender. The striker then curled in a delicious effort with the outside of his right foot while Senderos was left to languish on the turf. Joe Garner’s header from close-in for the visitors on the stroke of half-time left the outcome in the balance and Rangers sought to seize the opportunity to at least draw level. Ibrox manager Mark Warburton was right to observe afterwards that his side were in the ascendancy at the start of the second-half.
But while Dembele could boast of the perfect hat-trick, Sinclair secured the perfectly-timed goal. His neat finish on the hour mark – from Dembele’s sumptuously dinked reverse through ball – stopped Rangers’ mini-comeback in its tracks.
If anything, the experts were too cautious with their pre-match predictions. Many settled for a 3-1 home victory. Few were expecting anything quite as emphatic as what unfolded.
Rangers being reduced to ten men undoubtedly attributed to this. But even without the helping hand of Senderos, Celtic re-established their dominance when they moved two goals ahead again.
As is so often the way, the beaten side found it hard to live with pace. Celtic had plenty of it in Sinclair, Dembele and also James Forrest, whose impressive season continued before he made way for Patrick Roberts.
It didn’t help Rangers that Warburton chose to field a centre-half pairing that failed to disguise the fact this was their first experience playing together in a first-team match. In addition, Rob Kiernan’s wayward passing could have not have eased the nerves of the debutant Senderos beside him.
Rangers had become a rather bedraggled lot by the time Dembele completed his hat-trick to make it 4-1, bringing down Mikael Lusting’s cross and rifling past Wes Foderingham.
Stuart Armstrong, whose performance after replacing Tom Rogic early in the second-half suggested he could yet become the player many hoped, added a fifth in time added on.
Indeed, Rodgers could not hide his delight at the midfielder’s contribution afterwards. It seems he could have a significant part to play for Celtic this season, which is good news for Scotland too.
Rodgers noted that the main problem with Armstrong was finding his best position. “I know Stu’s worked from the left side, from the right side and as a central player as a two, but, for me, where he played today, in the No 10 position, is his best position. He has the energy to press the game and break forward and get beyond their line.”
Everything seemed to come off for the Celtic manager. This was far from the case for Warburton, whose main post-match gripe was even proved to be confused.
He complained Lustig was not given a second yellow for a foul on Barrie McKay in the second-half. The Swede, however, had not already been booked.
In Saturday’s edition of The Scotsman, Neil McCann, the Sky Sports analyst and former Rangers winger, wondered whether Warburton would be adventurous or stick to a game plan that has so far this season proved pretty rigid.
Well, he did plump for adventure in the end – and was possibly too bold. He could certainly be accused of this in the second-half when he replaced Kiernan with Harry Forrester.
There were still 20 minutes left and while highly unlikely, it wasn’t completely fanciful to think Rangers could rally to obtain a draw. There was some method in what was later perceived to be Warburton’s madness as he sought to chase the game.
But it didn’t work, far from it. The change, combined with Senderos’ red card for a foolish handball minutes later, left Rangers horribly exposed.