It was a tumultuous afternoon which finished ten-a-side, Alfredo Morelos handicapping Rangers with his inexcusable dismissal after just 32 minutes before the personnel numbers were evened up again for the final 20 minutes when Dedryck Boyata limped off after Celtic had made all three of their substitutions.
The only equation which matters for Neil Lennon is that Celtic are now within touching distance of wrapping up an eighth consecutive league crown, the minimum requirement if he is to extend his interim management of the club beyond the end of the season.
For Steven Gerrard, it was an afternoon which provided some cause for pride as his short-handed team showed commendable grit and purpose in the second half when Ryan Kent cancelled out Odsonne Edouard’s opener for Celtic. But the prime focus of Gerrard’s reflections will surely be on whether he can possibly cure the suspect temperament which continues to undermine the talent of his top-scorer Morelos.
Celtic already looked to be taking control of the contest when the Colombian striker perpetrated his latest senseless act of indiscipline. His departure from proceedings, just four minutes after Edouard had opened the scoring for the hosts, suggested the rest of the game would simply be an exercise in damage limitation for Gerrard’s side.
On a day when only victory would breathe any semblance of life into the title race from Rangers’ perspective, they had started brightly enough. Gerrard reverted to the starting line-up from their 1-0 win in the previous Old Firm fixture at Ibrox in December, meaning a recall in midfield for Ross McCrorie.
The intention was clearly to press high and try to get on to the front foot as much as possible and there was an early scare for Celtic when Boyata had to cut out a dangerous cross from Kent. But that initial sign of promise proved illusory for Rangers. The hosts soon got a grip of the midfield battle with Olivier Ntcham, making his first appearance since that Ibrox defeat, at the heart of their best work.
The French midfielder forced Allan McGregor into his first save of the afternoon, the Rangers goalkeeper reacting smartly to keep out a close-range effort after a fine break and cross from the left by Kieran Tierney. There were a couple of less certain moments from McGregor as Celtic stepped up the tempo and that nervousness seemed to spread through the Rangers defence as they came under increasing pressure.
They needlessly made life harder for themselves at times, Joe Worrall guilty more than once of giving possession away cheaply. One such error from Worrall forced his central defensive partner Connor Goldson to make a tremendous recovery tackle to deny Edouard inside the penalty area.
But Goldson had no answer when Edouard made the breakthrough in the 28th minute. The goal came from a rapid Celtic counter-attack after Rangers failed to make anything of a promising free-kick situation. It left them on the back foot as Forrest’s exceptional pass set Edouard surging clear of Goldson into the penalty area, the striker coolly beating McGregor with a firm left-foot shot.
Rangers’ afternoon then appeared to be unravelling in ignominious fashion when Morelos, after appearing to be clipped on the foot by Scott Brown, swung an elbow into the face of the Celtic captain. Referee Bobby Madden immediately reached for his top pocket and it took some time for Morelos to accept his fate as he remonstrated with assistant referee Alan Mulvanny before trudging off the pitch.
It needed another fine save from McGregor to prevent Tierney doubling Celtic’s lead before the interval and the prospect of another heavy defeat at Parkhead loomed large for the 800 Rangers fans inside the ground.
Celtic started the second half with Scott Sinclair replacing Jonny Hayes and the winger forced McGregor into action again as the hosts sought to turn the screw.
But a degree of slackness gradually worked its way into Celtic’s play and Rangers enjoyed their best spell of the game. Despite the absence of Morelos, they retained a focal point up front through the excellent Kent and his display was rewarded with a fine goal in the 63rd minute.
It was by far the best move of the match, James Tavernier linking up with Daniel Candeias down the right. Tavernier latched on to the winger’s back-heeled return pass and fed the ball to Kent, who burst through the middle of the Celtic defence and beat Scott Bain with a right-foot shot.
Rangers now sensed the opportunity to grab the most unlikely of victories and could have gone in front in the 74th minute when Ryan Jack blazed over from a good position after more fine work from Kent.
As the game ebbed and flowed compellingly in the closing stages, it was Celtic who struck the crucial blow. It was a horror moment for Rangers captain Tavernier, who was woefully short with a pass which Callum McGregor intercepted. He fed Edouard who held off a couple of challenges before squaring the ball for Forrest to drill it home.
The match concluded in an unsavoury manner with scuffles breaking out among some players as Rangers took objection to the nature of Celtic captain Scott Brown’s celebrations in front of the visiting support.
It leaves the Scottish FA’s compliance officer with a heavy in-tray this morning but along the corridor at Hampden, the SPFL can already order the engraving of Celtic’s name on the Premiership trophy once more.