RANGERS have been described as being like two different teams under Walter Smith as they battle on European and domestic fronts, but their flexibility could not withstand a night of riveting drama which delivered unto Celtic a new lease of life.
First, Smith used a 4-1-4-1 formation, then 4-4-2 and finally 4-4-1 on a night of swinging fortunes. When referee Kenny Clark's whistle sounded at the end, though, it was clear which side had taken most from the match, with Rangers unable to survive Carlos Cuellar's red card and injury to goalkeeper Allan McGregor.
Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink's winner deep into injury time brought more relief for Gordon Strachan, as Smith perhaps regretted claiming Celtic were as good as most European teams Rangers had played this season. Certainly the Parkhead side adopted their own European setting last night, with Rangers left to feel like AC Milan as they were denied a very decent result in the last minute. The Italians were speared in similar fashion earlier this season, although this time the goalkeeping substitution which took place was due to an actual injury, with Neil Alexander replacing McGregor.
Throw in a saved penalty, some attritional challenges and a yellow card to a non-playing substitute – Steven Naismith of Rangers – and it all adds up to quite a night.
Smith might be said to have got it wrong with his initial tactics. If there's a way to end a recent famine against Rangers, then Shunsuke Nakamura found it as he skipped down the middle of the park and rifled home a half volley that might have had the Rangers manager rubbing his eyes in his seat in the directors' box. This reaction would not only have been in recognition of the quality of the strike, but also because it's been so long since he saw Celtic score against a Rangers team of his. A decade, in fact.
It simply hadn't been in Smith's the script for the night. Keep it tight at the start was the manager's intention, and he was presumably content as Rangers appeared to survive the ferocity of Celtic's initial attacks.
"In Walter We Trust" read one banner hung from the upper tier, and the Rangers manager's team selection reflected why he will never be described as one of life's eccentrics. Since this was a game where Celtic were required to make the running Smith returned to the 5-4-1 formation which might as well be embossed into his crockery at home, so much has it come to represent the man.
Just a week ago this formation achieved its finest hour in Lisbon, although here Rangers found a yet more hostile environment. As Celtic engaged in their pre-match huddle, Barry Ferguson led his Rangers team-mates to the corner, where they saluted their own fans – move designed to provoke a siege mentality in his players.
The home side's own formation highlighted their need for goals, with Scott McDonald and Vennegoor of Hesselink asked to continue where they left off against Motherwell, as were Paul Hartley and Barry Robson in central midfield. Nakamura was given licence to roam more freely, which explained why he was sighted slicing through the middle of the Rangers midfield on his way to scoring the opener.
It was an oasis of quality in a match where the spectacle at this stage did not match the level of pre-match anticipation. Prior to Nakamura's intervention, much of the play had bobbled around the park, with Christian Dailly and Robson embarking on a feud coloured by a very tangerine-hue in the opening minute. Robson clattered into Dailly, with the Rangers player thereafter ignoring the offered hand from his opponent in favour of a prolonged rant at the referee.
Jean-Claude Darcheville returned to his role as chief goal-getter, with a duty also to connect with the midfield. The sweatband wrapped around his right wrist was not merely decorative. Darcheville's main weapon is an ability to run at defences from deep areas, and one such run into the box was well patrolled by Hartley, who spent much of last night on sentry duty.
Darcheville was joined by Nacho Novo in the first half as Rangers recognised the need now to ask questions of a Celtic defence which had also undergone some half-time alterations, with Mark Wilson on for Lee Naylor. The change by Smith meant Rangers adopted a more familiar shape, certainly when on domestic duty in Scotland. Lee McCulloch partnered Darcheville up front, with Novo on the right wing. This, though, was required to be altered again when Carlos Cuellar found himself sent to the dressing room after clearing Nakamura's effort off the line with his hand.
Novo immediately provoked alarm in the Celtic half having run from his own box with the ball, only for Vennegoor of Hesselink to up-end him with one of the more brutal examples of a striker's tackle. The game was now resembling a more typical Old Firm contest with Rangers now attacking with much more intent. Novo hardly needs his passion stoked, but the Spaniard was keen to make Celtic pay for the illegal way they had brought his last foray forward to an end, and did so in the 55th minute.
An untidy melee in midfield saw the ball break to his feet at the edge of the box, and the striker found the truest of finishes to beat Artur Boruc. The celebrations were wild, and long. But this is Parkhead. Rangers were thwarted at the death, as has been the fate of so many here.
Five more victories and the SPL title can be ours again, claims McGeady
THE last-minute winner claimed by Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink last night has convinced the Celtic players they can still win the league title, with winger Aiden McGeady claiming that five wins from their last five matches could well be enough to retain the championship.
"I thought the better team won in the end to be honest," he said. "We can put pressure on Rangers now. We can take a lot of confidence from this result. There a lot of games still to be played. I think if we win five games, we can win the league"
"The fact we have beaten Rangers stands us in good stead next week," he said, with reference to next weekend's re-match with the Ibrox side back at Celtic Park. "Next week will be massive as well. If we win then, it will be very, very close."
McGeady was pleased Celtic managed to survive a "sticky spell" in the second half when Rangers came back into the game after Nacho Novo had replaced Kirk Broadfoot.
"We kept plugging away and we did not let our heads go down," he said. "No-one can say we don't have a lot of character in the side after that performance. It showed a lot of guts to keep trying to get that goal."
The penalty incident helped change the course of the game, although Celtic could not take advantage of the situation immediately, with Allan McGregor saving Scott McDonald's effort from the spot.
But Carlos Cuellar's red card for saving Shunsuke Nakamura's shot on the line impacted on Rangers eventually, with McDonald doing well to head a ball across for Vennegoor of Hesselink to convert in the dying seconds.
McDonald's celebrations were as wild as anyone else's at Celtic Park, since he recognised the winner had allowed him off the hook. And McGeady expressed his surprise that the Australian had taken the penalty, with Nakamura seemingly eager to place the ball on the spot after his fine opening goal.
"Jan usually takes the penalties, but he passed it to Scott for some reason," explained McGeady. "Maybe Scott felt more confident."
The emotional climax spilled over after the final whistle, with players from both sides exchanging punches at the end.
David Weir of Rangers and Celtic's Gary Caldwell are set to be reported to the Scottish Football Association.
McGeady, though, played down the scale of the fracas.
"It was handbags," he said. "It happens all the time. It was just one minor which escalated into something else."
If Lee McCulloch sounded in pain it was due more to an ankle knock received in the first half rather than the result. Although frustrated that his team had conceded so late in the match, the midfielder is still confident Rangers can recover.
They have a quick opportunity to make amends in any case, with Rangers due back at Celtic Park a week on Sunday.
"They scored the goal and took the points but it's not the end of the world," he said. "In the first half, they were the better team, and passed the ball better. They out-fought us, which is a strange thing to say about a Rangers side.
"In the second half, we passed the ball better, so it was disappointing to lose in injury time. Tonight we were just a bit unlucky."
"We know what we still have to do, and we have the players to do it," he continued. "We won't let our heads go down.
"There's a long way to go. No one in a Rangers jersey is getting carried away. It's a big game when we come back here next week but we know what to expect."
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