Andy Harrow gives his take on Celtic’s win over Rangers as they extend their lead at the top of the table.
Celtic won’t be de-throned this season
When Josh Windass stole the ball off Dedryck Boyata three minutes into this frenetic Old Firm encounter and slammed the ball passed Scott Bain to give Rangers an early lead it looked like we’d have a genuine title race to look forward to. Although Tom Rogic quickly re-established parity, Celtic’s grip on the trophy loosened again when Daniel Candeias put Rangers back ahead.
Much was made in the build-up to the fixture of Rangers’ title credentials. Up until Christmas, a challenge by the Ibrox men looked fanciful due to their inconsistency as losses to the likes of Hamilton, Dundee and Kilmarnock halted any opportunity for momentum. However, a run of seven wins in nine Premiership matches, allied with Celtic’s inconsistent form, had brought Rangers to winning touching distance of the league leaders. Had they won on Sunday, it would have moved them to within three points of the top.
With Candeias’ goal came a feeling that the tide was indeed turning in Rangers’ favour. Celtic looked brittle at the back, uncertain in midfield and seemingly there for the taking. One of the more underestimated aspects of Brendan Rodgers’ side is their mental fortitude though. They settled, levelled late in the half and, despite Jozo Simunovic’s red card, managed to edge ahead for the first time thanks to substitute Odsonne Edouard.
An impressive rearguard action - and an inexplicable Alfredo Morelos miss - saw the Parkhead side to victory and, more than likely, another title. Instead of Rangers being three points behind it’s nine, and Celtic have a game in hand to boot. The green and white ribbons may as well be tied to the trophy now.
Both sides need to re-build their defences in the summer
This was a goal-laden Old Firm fixture and, while the strikers obviously played their part, a large portion of responsibility laid with the clowish defending from both sides’ centre halves. Dedryck Boyata started the ball rolling just 270 seconds into the game, as Windass picked his pocket to fire Rangers ahead, and the away side were repeatedly exposed down both flanks as they struggled to deal with the Murty’s wide men. The second goal came from such an attack, as Declan John was allowed time and space to cross into the Celtic box for Candeias. Despite having enough players in the box to deal with it, no one in a green-and-white jersey did and the Portuguese made them pay. Jozo Simunovioc has had a poor season and he blotted his copybook further with a needless swinging elbow into Morelos during the second period.
Rangers back line were just as culpable as Celtic twice leveled before taking the lead. After Windass’ opener, Tom Rogic was allowed too much time to pick his spot for the first and Fabio Cardoso - an early substitute for David Bates - failed to deal with a long ball as Demeble stole in just before the break. The defence was breached again during a rare Celtic second half foray, as Edouard was allowed to cut inside and fire past Foderingham.
While Celtic defended manfully in the second half - and Rodgers can take positives from Jack Hendry’s appearance and Kristoffer Ajer’s improvement - the continue to make too many individual and collective mistakes for a side with their lofty aspirations. For Rangers, equally, their promising attacking play is too often undermined by sub-standard defending. It’s something both sides will need to correct in the summer.
Morelos’ miss means questions will persist about his ability
How good is Alfredo Morelos? It’s a question that’s been posed with some regularity, but for which there doesn’t appear to be a satisfactory answer. On one hand, the Columbian has scored 13 league goals this season and has found the net in big games against the likes of Aberdeen and Hibernian. On the other, he’s a striker who should have scored more given the chances he’s presented with and who hasn’t yet scored against Celtic. Supporters and critics would have plenty of ammunition for their respective arguments after the latest Old Firm game.
Morelos proved a constant source of trouble to a shaky Celtic defence, pouncing whenever they looked hesitant and driving forward with the ball. A cheeky nutmeg and pull-back showed he’s a player in confidence. Yet, he also missed a couple of gilt-edged chances. On the first, he appeared to be through on goal, only to see his net-bound shot blocked by telescopically-legged Kristoffer Ajer, while only he will know how he managed to hit the post for a couple of yards out, with the goal gaping. His miss cost Rangers but he still remains the club’s best striker.
Celtic’s strength-in-depth proves the difference
It was the second time in nine days that Odsonne Edouard had made a difference from the bench. Last weekend, he energised a previously labourious Celtic to victory in the Scottish Cup against Morton and at Ibrox he made a telling difference again; scoring the winner only two minutes after replacing James Forrest. The striker is perhaps not as naturally talented as his strike partner, Moussa Dembele, but he’s no mug. At home to Zenit in the Europa League he came on and held the ball up excellently, easing the Russian pressure, while he’s shown in games against the likes of Motherwell, Hearts and now Rangers, that he has an eye for goal.
His appearance in the Old Firm game summed up the difference in the two squads. While Rangers brought on their own talented striker in Jason Cummings, their were few others Murty could turn to in a pinch. Rodgers, meanwhile, had no such issues. Indeed, the Celtic boss could afford leave Scott Sinclair, Patrick Roberts and Charly Musonda on the bench. While Rangers need to huff-and-puff with largely the same core of difference-makers, Rodgers has a surplus of players who can change a game, as Edouard proved.
Murty still has much to prove as Rangers manager
At 2-2, with Jozo Simunovic sent packing and with more than 30 minutes on the clock at Ibrox, Rangers were presented with the best opportunity to beat Celtic since April, 2016. Almost two years have passed since their Scottish Cup semi final triumph and the blue side of Glasgow have only managed two draws since. They - and Graeme Murty - could not have asked for a better chance.
It was one they passed up and so the painful wait goes on. This one would have hurt more than most of the others too; they were up against a Celtic side no longer invincible, certainly not impregnable and with a young, occasionally calamitous, back line. While Celtic improved defensively, they were helped by a Rangers side that suddenly seemed uncertain and who were shorn of the necessary nous to carve out clear cut chances. Yes, Morelos hit the post when he should have scored, but there were not enough questions asked of Kristoffer Ajer, Jack Hendry of Scott Bain.
Murty could point to the lack of attacking depth on his bench and Morelos’ miss as contributory factors - and he’d be right - but he must shoulder some of the blame. Murty has stabilised Rangers in recent weeks and they’ve found a creative verve and swagger previously missing, but against Celtic he was unable to come up with a way to score when it mattered most. Whether he likes it or not, Murty will largely be judged in his role by his performances against their nearest rivals and, while there have been some positives, this is a significant black mark against his name.