The balance of power in Scottish football remains firmly in Celtic’s control. On an afternoon of vindication for Neil Lennon as manager of the eight-in-a-row champions, Steven Gerrard was confronted by a sharp reminder of how much improvement is still required from Rangers if they hope to wrest domestic dominance away from their Old Firm rivals.
Just two and a half weeks ago, elements of the Celtic support were irrationally calling for Lennon’s head after the Champions League exit at the hands of Cluj. Fast forward to Sunday afternoon and the 800 travelling fans squeezed into a small corner of an otherwise crestfallen Ibrox were united in a chorus of ‘There’s only one Neil Lennon’ at full-time.
It was a fully merited victory for Lennon’s side against a Rangers side lacking both conviction and any clear sense of direction, not accusations which could be levelled at them previously this season. In contrast, Celtic were focused and tactically disciplined throughout.
Odsonne Edouard’s fifth goal in Old Firm combat gave them a 32nd minute lead they seldom looked like surrendering before Jonny Hayes’ stoppage-time strike wrapped up the points. Rangers’ wretched day was completed when Jordan Jones stupidly incurred a straight red card in the dying seconds.
Having been outpressed as well as outplayed on both of their visits to Ibrox last season, Celtic were clearly determined to start on the front foot on this occasion. While Rangers were curiously passive for much of the first half, Celtic’s more vibrant approach fully merited the advantage provided by Edouard’s coolly taken breakthrough.
It was the visitors who were first to threaten, Ryan Christie lofting a shot over from around 22 yards, as Lennon’s men set about the task of imposing the kind of authority in midfield they had so glaringly lacked in those two previous defeats in Govan.
Jermain Defoe’s inclusion ahead of Alfredo Morelos in attack for Rangers was a surprise in the eyes of many of the home support, although Gerrard’s rotation of his strikers has been a regular feature since the start of the campaign.
For much of the opening 45 minutes, Defoe found himself feeding on scraps although it required a fine penalty box interception from Hatem Elhamed to prevent the veteran former England international getting on the end of an incisive pass from Scott Arfield in the ninth minute.
From the resulting corner curled in by Steven Davis, Nikola Katic might have done better than head over from the edge of the six yard box.
But without cutting Rangers open too often at the other end, it was Celtic who continued to look the likelier side. Momentary hesitation from Edouard on the edge of the penalty area saw him denied a clear shooting opportunity by Connor Goldson’s timely challenge.
As Celtic continued to probe, Edouard curled a free-kick wide of Allan McGregor’s right hand post after Glen Kamara, looking well off the pace, had fouled Christie around 25 yards out.
Referee Bobby Madden seemed determined to resist flourishing his cards for as long as possible. Callum McGregor and Ryan Jack were both extremely fortunate to escape first half bookings for wild challenges on Arfield and Boli Bolingoli respectively.
Celtic’s opener was a personal calamity for Goldson, the big central defender under no great pressure when he gave the ball away to Mikey Johnston. The young Celtic winger seized upon the error with eagerness and intelligence, threading a fine pass into the path of Edouard on the left of the penalty area. The French striker displayed customary composure as he slipped his shot under the advancing McGregor.
Rangers made a change at the start of the second half, Kamara unsurprisingly the man to make way as he was replaced by Sheyi Ojo in a bid to bring greater width and pace in the attacking third. But although the hosts dominated possession for much of the second period, they did little to trouble the assured Celtic backline.
Nir Bitton, a calming presence in central defence until he suffered an injury and was replaced by debutant Moritz Bauer midway through the second half, made a smart block to deny Defoe inside the area. Fraser Forster was enjoying as stress-free a reintroduction to this fixture as he could have hoped for, although the big Celtic goalkeeper did make something of a meal of it when he scrambled an Ojo shot behind for a corner.
It was a rare effort on target from Rangers and the impatient home support welcomed the introduction of Morelos for Defoe on the hour mark. The Colombian quickly found his way in behind the Celtic defence, only to wildly blaze his shot wide.
It was McGregor who was the busier goalkeeper in the closing stages as Celtic regularly threatened on the counter attack. He made a terrific double save, keeping out efforts from Elhamed and Christopher Jullien, as Rangers struggled to clear a couple of corner kicks.
Edouard nodded over after McGregor had blocked a poorly struck effort from substitute Olivier Ntcham and even when six minutes of stoppage time were signalled, there was little sense that Rangers would be able to take advantage of them.
Instead, it was Celtic who sealed their hugely satisfying afternoon with their second goal three minutes into the additional period. Ntcham and Edouard combined sharply as Rangers were again caught on the counter, substitute Hayes applying the finishing touch from close range after his first attempt had been blocked by McGregor.
Madden had managed to last until the 90th minute before issuing his first booking of the day but in the last minute of stoppage time, he had no option but to reach straight for his red card when Rangers substitute Jones committed a foolish and futile high challenge on Bauer.