Moussa Dembele continued his seemingly anointed introduction to the Old Firm rivalry with a dramatically timed and sublimely finished goal to settle an absorbing Betfred Cup semi-final in Celtic’s favour.
The French striker’s contribution was not as spectacular as his historic hat-trick which marked his debut in the fixture last month when
Rangers were swept aside 5-1 at Celtic Park in the opening Premiership meeting of the campaign.
But Dembele’s 87th-minute winner at Hampden – his 14th goal of the season – was no less significant for the Scottish champions as they savoured reaching their first final under Brendan Rodgers’ guidance.
They deserved to book their return to the national stadium for that 27 November showdown with Aberdeen, as they were always the more threatening side in a contest which managed to remain fully engrossing without ever reaching any great heights.
Rangers will take some consolation from a performance which was much improved and certainly far more intensely competitive than the one they served up at Parkhead. For that, Mark Warburton can take credit for challenging the notion he is a manager who lacks tactical flexibility.
His switch yesterday from his favoured 4-3-3 set-up to a formation which was effectively a more pragmatic 4-1-4-1 for most of the afternoon allowed Rangers to remain in contention throughout.
But this was ultimately another memorable afternoon for Rodgers whose progressive start to life in the Celtic hot seat gained further momentum. The possibility of a domestic treble in his first season at the club remains distinct.
After their somewhat chastening Champions League defeat against Borussia Monchengladbach, this was also an impressive illustration of the greater mental strength and physical resilience Rodgers appears to have instilled in the Celtic players.
There was no European hangover as Celtic matched their manager’s dismissive attitude towards the so-called Hampden hoodoo which had seen the club suffer eight defeats – including six in semi-finals – at the venue since 2010.
Rangers, whose Scottish Cup semi-final victory last April accounted for one of those miserable trips to Hampden for Celtic, simply lacked the necessary penetration in the attacking third of the pitch on this occasion.
They had fleeting moments of menace and Barrie McKay might have given his team something tangible to build on had he not wastefully failed to pick out a team-mate from a promising position after just seven minutes.
It was the first incident of note in a cagey opening and Celtic responded powerfully, Scott Sinclair setting up a prime chance for Tom Rogic whose shot was deflected for a corner off Rob Kiernan.
Rangers rightly had a penalty claim turned down by Craig Thomson when Celtic defender Jozo Simunovic, replacing midweek fall guy Kolo Toure in the only change to Rodgers’ line-up, clearly got a touch on the ball as he challenged McKay. But Thomson’s decision to book the Rangers winger for simulation appeared harsh.
Matt Gilks, preferred in goal to Wes Foderingham as Warburton kept his promise to the veteran Scotland international that he would be first choice in this tournament, made a fine save to deny Sinclair after slack play by Rangers captain Lee Wallace allowed Dembele to create the chance.
But Gilks didn’t look so clever when his poor touch in dealing with a Jason Holt pass-back gifted the ball straight to Rogic. Fortunately for Gilks, the Australian midfielder was unable to take advantage and saw his scuffed effort from close range diverted wide.
Rangers were increasingly hemmed in as half-time approached but, aside from a Kieran Tierney shot comfortably held by Gilks, Celtic found it difficult to carve out any clear-cut openings against a defence soundly marshalled by the veteran Clint Hill.
Celtic thought they had made the breakthrough four minutes into the second half when Erik Sviatchenko rose to meet a Sinclair cross and guided his header beyond Gilks into the corner of the net. But their celebrations were halted by Thomson who contentiously ruled that Celtic’s Danish defender had fouled Hill before getting to the ball.
It took Rangers until the 51st minute to force Craig Gordon into his first save of the day when the Celtic No 1 comfortably gathered a long-range effort by James Tavernier, who had been deployed in midfield with Lee Hodson coming in at right-back.
Gilks made a smart save to deny Sinclair as Celtic continued to carry more threat, but Rangers should have opened the scoring on the counter-attack in the 58th minute. Tavernier’s cross picked out Holt’s brilliantly timed run into the penalty area but the midfielder could not apply the finishing touch as his shot was blocked by Simunovic.
Celtic captain Scott Brown, a tirelessly driving force throughout, soon got his team back on the front foot. He earned a free-kick on the edge of the penalty area when one surging run was halted by a foul by Andy Halliday, one of very few mis-timed challenges made by Rangers’ best performer on the day.
Sinclair struck the set piece sweetly, sending the ball over the defensive wall only to see it rebound from the crossbar and into the grateful clutch of Gilks.
In the tense finale, substitute Joe Dodoo saw a shot deflected wide for Rangers, then Celtic replacement Stuart Armstrong was denied by another good save by Gilks. Just as extra time looked inevitable, Celtic finally turned their territorial dominance into something tangible.
Wallace was caught the wrong side of Leigh Griffiths as the striker, a 70th-minute replacement for Rogic, burst clear into the right side of the penalty area.
In a moment which underlined why Griffiths could yet form a profitable strike partnership with the man who has supplanted him as Celtic’s first-choice front man, his low cross was met by a cutely flicked finish by Dembele which sent the ball beyond Gilks.