How pendulum has swung firmly back to Celtic - asphyxiated Rangers, the muscle men, the assistmeister and Ange Postecoglou
There are still 32 games remaining … anything can happen in the next nine months … a five-point gap is hardly insurmountable with three more league derbies to come between bitter rivals to come. Yet, anyone who witnessed the 4-0 evisceration by Ange Postecoglou’s men over their Ibrox adversaries knows that any caveats don’t cut it. The simply don’t.
Celtic, now 38 straight top flight outings unbeaten, are in a league of their own in the cinch Premiership right now and it is fanciful to believe that Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s men will seriously threaten them for the title. Instead, the question now being begged – almost ridiculously, when you think about it – is whether Celtic might be capable of presenting problems for Real Madrid when European football’s glitterati come calling to Celtic Park on Tuesday for the clubs’ Champions League opener.
It wasn’t up for debate that Postecoglou had fashioned a team imbued with priceless pace, poise and penetration long before their latest derby demolition. But it was the power play to adorn their artistry – which oozed from two-goal Liel Abada, scorer Jota and assistmeister Matt O’Riley – that left Rangers asphyxiated from the opening exchanges. Van Bronckhorst’s Plans A to D had been cited as the means to put the manacles on opponents they had physically hustled out of their stride in recent confrontations. But Postecoglou’s mere Plan A now patently encompasses an awe-inducing aggressive intent. An element that completes the set for facets with which they are currently operating on a different plain to Rangers. Celtic are hardly a squad of muscle men but now appear to possess the physical strength to stand up to more imposing opponents, as their ancient adversaries have traditionally tended to be.
Indeed on that front, just one interaction said everything about what was to unfold – even after the home team straight away lost their most transformative performer, Kyogo Furuhashi, forced off with a shoulder minutes after being felled by John Lundstram in the opening seconds. The opener that then ensued in the eighth minute was the result of Rangers’ enforcer essentially being sacked by the burling, on-rushing Jota to concede a throw-in the Portuguese took in a flash. Sent towards O’Riley, the playmaker’s outstretched foot allowed him to flick the ball across goal, where Abada was there to pounce. Rangers keeper Jon McLaughlin got a full hand on the Israeli’s far-from-clean hit but could not prevent it dribbling over the line at his left-hand post. It was to be the beginning of a wretched afternoon for McLaughlin, guilty of an excruciating error in passing the ball straight to David Turnbull to allow the midfielder to knock it straight back passed him for Celtic’s 78th minute fourth.
This was not an encounter in which a keeper’s calamities were the difference between two teams, though. Postecoglou’s men were sharper, sleeker and stronger in all departments. Alarming for Rangers ahead of Wednesday’s Champions League opener away to Ajax, they were cut to ribbons by their hosts’ one-touch alacrity in a manner that wasn’t a whole heap different from how Celtic dismantled Dundee United in their record 9-0 win the week before.
Postecoglou’s team passed up a series of opportunities before they made it 2-0 on the half hour mark with a strike of sheer class from the unstoppable Jota. And again, the thinking and acting time of the home players left Rangers looking comatose. A quick free-kick from Callum McGregor to O’Riley allowed the latter to pick out a puncturing run down the left channel from Jota. His first touch to control the pass was divine, and then his deft scoop over McLaughlin heavenly.
The hell being then inflicted on van Bronckhorst’s team appeared as if it could end up with the full circles for them. Especially when, in a carbon copy of their 3-0 filleting at Celtic Park in February that proved pivotal in the Ibrox side losing their grip on the title, they were picked off a third time before the interval. The defensive disarray of the visitors was inescapable as a Greg Taylor low cross in from the left was missed by a posse of blue shirts as O’Riley made inadvertent contact. That led to the ball travelling to the back post where Abada was lurking on his own and so able to drill through McLaughlin’s legs.
Rangers offered token resistance in a more mundane second period but the feeling persisted that they were a blunt instrument in any attempts to breach Celtic’s defences, Cameron Carter-Vickers and Joe Hart, in particular masters of their domain.
The swinging of the pendulum in the Glasgow rivals struggle for supremacy has been propelled to a full right angle in favour of Celtic by the presence of Postecoglou in Glasgow’s east end and the player purchasing and redefining of the club’s playing style across his almost 15 months in charge. Consider this. Exactly one year ago, Rangers were fresh from an invincible title success achieved by a monstrous 25 point margin and had just extended their hex over Celtic with a sixth derby win across seven-game unbeaten sequence in the pair’s hostilities. It feels like a different age. Perhaps because it is inarguable we are now in an altogether different one.