Celtic show up when it matters - Rangers are only ones with sad faces due to Brendan Rodgers' love of inflicting Ibrox pain

Despite numerous challenges this season, Celtic hold whip hand in matches that really matter

Celtic tried to keep a lid on the celebrations with the old mantra that there is “still football to be played” in the title race but not many were listening, certainly those of a green-and-white persuasion in the stands.

Beating Rangers 2-1 in the final Premiership Old Firm derby of the season was the title decider. With two rounds of fixtures to go, Celtic are six points clear of their ancient adversaries and have a better goal difference by seven. They may be crowned champions before next kicking a ball, should Rangers slip up at home to Dundee, otherwise all eyes are on Rugby Park on Wednesday. A draw will be enough to put the official seal on proceedings.

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Live It Up by Mental As Anything blared out through the Parkhead PA system as victorious manager Brendan Rodgers led his players around a packed stadium to take the acclaim of 60,000 jubilant Celtic supporters. The only sad faces were on the other side of the city. Rodgers was quick to hit out at some of his critics this season – and there have been many. Former player-turned-pundit Chris Sutton questioned the Northern Irishman’s commitment earlier in the campaign and Rodgers turned on that particular comment, saying he works morning noon and night for the Celtic cause.

Brendan Rodgers has rejuvenated Celtic from a position of weakness in the title race.Brendan Rodgers has rejuvenated Celtic from a position of weakness in the title race.
Brendan Rodgers has rejuvenated Celtic from a position of weakness in the title race.

The challenge from Rangers, who have put up a strong charge under Philippe Clement since the Belgian’s arrival in October, has lit a fire under Rodgers. This has not been an easy season for him, taking over from the popular Ange Postecoglou last summer, whose football in the past two seasons was swashbuckling. Celtic’s playing style may not have changed much but they have not executed it with the same panache and exhilaration as under the Australian. Poor recruitment in replacing talismanic attacking figures such as Jota and Liel Abada is one of the major factors behind that, as is the absence of the under-rated midfielder Aaron Mooy, an assister and goalgetter. And then there are injures: Cameron Carter-Vickers, Reo Hatate, Callum McGregor and Daizen Maeda have all missed spells this season. Crucially, they were all fit and present on Saturday.

What became so important in March, when Rangers overtook Celtic and laid down the challenge, was that the defending champions responded. The muscle memory of winning a title was still there, but they need to flex their biceps and wrestle control back. It is to Rodgers’ immense credit that he, internally at least, managed the situation so well. His experience of title races north and south of the border have come into play. He also knows how to win an Old Firm match. Only once across two spells has he tasted defeat in this derby. The ex-Leicester and Liverpool man spoke pre-match of his privilege of being front and centre of such an iconic fixture. He lives for beating Rangers. Despite the turbulence, Celtic have taken ten points from 12 in their games against them this season.

And when it has really mattered, his players have stepped up to the plate. In such a high-stakes derby as Saturday, keeping cool and showing composure would always win the day. Captain McGregor, fighting through the pain of an Achilles injury, ran the show in midfield and made his Rangers counterparts look naive and out of their depth. Not one Celtic player lunged in as recklessly as John Lundstram, the experienced Ibrox midfielder seeing red for a bad tackle on the stroke of half time to torpedo his team’s fightback. Matt O’Riley missed a penalty but before that showed lucidity to lash home the opening goal. Him and McGregor excelled, and the calmness of Carter-Vickers helped resist a late charge from Rangers. This is not a vintage Celtic team right now but Rangers, in the cold light of day, have proven themselves to be no great shakes either when the title race entered the red zone.

“I thought we started the game really well in terms of getting the fans with us early doors – the place was rocking,” said Celtic defender Greg Taylor, a veteran of these occasions. “At 2-0, we were really dominant, and we could have had a few before that. But then I think we probably took our eye off it a wee bit when we lost the goal. That was disappointing as a collective, as a unit. But we started the second half really, really well again, were dominant and probably should have been three or four-one up. Then we missed the penalty and got a wee bit edgy as a team. But we showed heart to follow through with the win.

The Celtic players take the acclaim of the home support after taking down Rangers 2-1 at Parkhead.The Celtic players take the acclaim of the home support after taking down Rangers 2-1 at Parkhead.
The Celtic players take the acclaim of the home support after taking down Rangers 2-1 at Parkhead.

“Most teams, when you miss a big opportunity like that, you can feel the nerves. It was such a big occasion and everyone knew what was on the line, so it’s natural. But a lot of boys out there showed heart and I thought the subs coming on played a big part as well, running themselves into the ground on a hot day. It was a real collective team effort.”

It was put to Taylor – a safe pair of hands when it comes to speaking with the media – that this title win could feel better than the rest given the travails of this season. “‘If’ is the key word because there is still football to be played,” was the deadpan response. “But I wouldn’t say it would feel any better. Winning trophies is the best feeling in the world, and doing it at this club is unbelievable. I wouldn’t say it’s any more special, it’s just been a bumpier ride.”

And in title races, it’s not always about how you get to the finishing line, just that you get there first. It is inconceivable that Celtic won’t parade the Premiership trophy this weekend after St Mirren come to Parkhead. Beating their closest rivals when it mattered most made sure of that.



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