Goals from James Tavernier and Scott Arfield consigned Neil Lennon to his first defeat as Celtic’s interim manager and uncertainty remains over whether he will be handed the job on a permanent basis.
Lennon shouldn’t be judged on one slipshod performance alone and he remains on course to see out the task handed to him in February by completing Celtic’s quest for a third successive domestic treble.
For Rangers manager Steven Gerrard, this was a day which provided him with plenty of encouragement for the future but perhaps also a real sense of frustration that his players lacked the consistency this season to overhaul a Celtic side just six points ahead of them with one round of league fixtures remaining.
Finding a source of motivation is seldom an issue for either side in this rivalry, regardless of how much is resting on the outcome. But it was Gerrard’s men who certainly looked far more incentivised on this occasion as they sought to make a positive statement against the newly crowned eight-in-a-row champions.
Rangers snapped into challenges with vigour and urgency from the start, an approach typified by Ryan Kent when he closed down Mikael Lustig in the build up to the opening goal. As Kent robbed Lustig of possession, Michael Johnston was left with little option but to halt the on-loan Liverpool winger with a clear foul just outside the penalty area.
The free-kick, in a wide position on the left, didn’t seem to present an obvious opportunity for a direct attempt at goal. But the Celtic defence were totally deceived by Tavernier’s whipped delivery as the ball soared beyond the flat-footed Scott Bain and nestled in the left hand corner of the Celtic goalkeeper’s net.
Celtic were struggling to come to terms with a formation which had a curiously experimental look with Johnston and Jonny Hayes effectively operating as wing-backs while Oliver Burke joined Odsonne Edouard up front.
Lennon switched to a more orthodox back four midway through a first half in which Rangers would feel their general dominance should have brought further reward.
Defoe, again leading the line in preference to top scorer Alfredo Morelos, linked up smartly with Kent as Rangers created their next opening but the veteran striker’s shot was comfortably saved by Bain.
Celtic’s first glimpse of goal saw them fail to test Wes Foderingham, replacing the suspended Allan McGregor between the posts for Rangers, as Burke blazed an effort wildly off target.
Rangers were quickly back on the front foot but Defoe’s more than theatrical attempt to win a penalty kick, as he tumbled despite no contact from Kristoffer Ajer, might easily have earned him a caution.
As the hosts continued to control the tempo and direction of the contest, a clever corner routine involving Kent, Steven Davis and Arfield almost caught Celtic out but the final pass lacked accuracy.
Bain made a brave save at the feet of Arfield to deny Rangers in first half stoppage time with Connor Goldson heading narrowly over from the resultant corner.
Celtic, with Jeremy Toljan replacing the injured Lustig at the start of the second half, were left incensed and bemused six minutes after the resumption when Jon Flanagan escaped with only a booking when he caught Scott Brown with a raised elbow as the pair jostled for position at a corner kick. The full-back could count himself exceptionally fortunate not to join the lengthy list of dismissals Rangers have collected this season.
The momentum remained firmly with Rangers with Celtic unable to make any significant impression in a midfield battle bossed by Ryan Jack and Davis. The home side fully merited the second goal which finally came their way in the 63rd minute as a consequence of an outstanding move.
Glen Kamara left Celtic captain Brown twisting in the wind with a silky turn and when the Finnish international’s piercing through ball was dummied by Defoe, it found the run into the area of Arfield who slipped a composed finish beyond Bain.
Celtic introduced Scott Sinclair for the peripheral Johnston, while Rogic made way for Olivier Ntcham but there was no appreciable improvement for the visitors who already seemed to have accepted their fate.
Defoe almost added a third for Rangers with 12 minutes remaining when he saw his initial shot parried by Bain before clipping the rebound onto the top of the crossbar.
The scoreline was kind to Celtic, given the paucity of their performance, but they should have halved the deficit in the 84th minute. Odsonne Edouard broke free down the left and his low cross found Burke unmarked around 12 yards out. The on-loan West Bromwich Albion forward completely lacked conviction with his shot which was blocked by Foderingham low to his left. Damningly for Celtic, it was their first and only attempt on target all afternoon.
RANGERS: Foderingham, Tavernier, Goldson, Katic, Flanagan; Jack, Davis (McCrorie 90), Kamara; Arfield (Candeias 83), Defoe (Morelos 80), Kent. Subs not used: Firth, Worrall, Halliday, Barisic.
CELTIC: Bain, Lustig (Toljan 46), Ajer, Simunovic, Hayes; Brown, McGregor; Burke, Rogic (Ntcham 71), Johnston (Sinclair 65); Edouard. Subs not used: De Vries, Bitton, Benkovic, Ralston.