Celtic’s problem hasn’t so much been Rangers but themselves. For the second time in succession against their bitterest rivals, they proved unable to perm every metric of superiority into a victory. A 1-1 draw might have stopped the losing rot in the fixture, but it denied their supporters the win they craved. And all the product of age old deficiencies rearing up again.
John Kennedy might seek to talk up his team. Understandable, when they were dominant, slick and creative in spells, and had their visitors on the rack with the intelligent manner they fashioned a raft of opportunities. However, these virtues are more than offset by Celtic’s bog-standard vices.
There has been a lot of rot talked this week about the tide turning in this fixture. Across the past two seasons, the clubs have met six times. Rangers have outplayed Celtic in three, with the roles reversed in the other three. The fact that the Parkhead men have taken one point from six now in back-to-back encounters they have commanded betrays the shortcomings that have consistently let them down.
In this season’s competitions, Celtic haven’t been able to to deliver on even the most meagre target. What their followers demanded from them against the unbeaten Premiership champions was a victory to ward off any threat of a league campaign without loss to match the exploits of Brendan Rodgers’ side in the 2016-17 top flight. For it to prove beyond them was ridiculous when they had 16 goal attempts as they restricted their opponents to three efforts on target.
The Ibrox men, entitled to be weary in body and mind following all that went on during and after their Europa League exit against Slavia Prague on Thursday and with the league settled, appeared there for the taking. Yet, as Dundee United, Ross County and now Rangers have demonstrated in the past month, there are certain givens that have been taken from Celtic this season.
Your defence can be opened up consistently against them without punishment - as was true for the Tayside men a fortnight ago - and you can score against them even if you put them under precious little pressure..the case in their 1-0 loss at Dingwall that ended Neil Lennon’s tenure.
The derby draw was a mix of both. The Alfredo Morelos 38th minute equaliser from a corner poorly-defended zonally by Celtic - a la County - means Rangers’ past five derby goals have all ensued from set-pieces. That is an atrocious trend but is telling as to how the Parkhead men, with more craft in their ranks, have not been prospering in the fixture as they should have.
In the fixture this season, Celtic have made little from a lot; their adversaries much from relatively little. They had hardly been up the pitch when Jonjoe Kenny needlessly conceded the corner from which they capitalised. Before it, though, Celtic should have been three-up. The sweeping move that allowed Mohamed Elyounoussi to head in the 23rd minute opener was typical of the pattern that had developed; Celtic switching play rythmically and breaking the visitors’ lines time and again.
It would be easy to focus on the penalty incident six minutes after Celtic claimed the lead as the source of their troubles. There was the slightest contact when Borna Barisic slid in, but potentially not enough for referee Willie Collum to award a penalty. Certainly the Frenchman did exaggerate the touch on him in how he hit the ground, with Collum decreeing that worthy of a yellow card for simulation. Rangers have fared well on such contentious moments this season, it must be said, and it is remarkable that 15 months have now elapsed since a penalty was awarded against them in the Premiership.
Yet, Celtic’s failure to claim a win their play merited was all about a growing softness in their opponents’ final third across the second half of this morale-sapping campaign. Allan McGregor may have made a series of saves, but they were all stops comfortable for him. He had no ‘how-did-he-block-that’ moments as he did when he kept the Ibrox club’s goal intact in the pair’s January meeting.
Callum McGregor and David Turnbull both drove the ball straight at the Rangers keeper when boring down on goal, but the chief culprit was Edouard. A delightful one-two with Turnbull that sliced the visitors’ backline apart on the stroke of half-time should have been his moment. Instead, from the centre of goal only 14 yards out, he couldn’t find power or direction in unconvincingly knocking an effort straight at McGregor, who let the ball go through his legs before clasping it as it dribbled towards goal. Edouard was similarly blunt from a glaring opening in the second period, which came on the back of the first ending with Elyounoussi lacking the clean contact from a header required to stop McGregor being able to flick it with a hand.
What the latest confrontation between the pair revealed was nothing very much, in the final analysis. These are not two teams whose relative squad strength or capabilities should see 20 points separating them, but Kennedy has acknowledged Rangers’ consistency has earned them that chasm.
The Ibrox men have an edge and ruthlessness that has allowed them to win 28 and draw five of their 33 league games, and they deserve huge plaudits for such an outstanding record. Yet, however daft it might sound, there is no compelling evidence that Celtic’s decline is guaranteed to take up a permanence beyond this unreal Covid-19 season, for all the damage done across six months of self-inflicted ills.