Joel Sked gives his take as Celtic made it 57 games unbeaten in domestic action, easing to a 2-0 win over rivals Rangers.
Celtic didn’t have to be at their best
Simply put, this was a straight-forward, competent performance from Brendan Rodgers’ men. They came out the traps quickly, aiming to put the game to bed early on, perhaps with an eye on Wednesday’s Champions League clash with Anderlecht. They didn’t turn their dominance into goals as Rangers found a footing and posed a threat on the break. But as Rangers grew in confidence Celtic’s play became a little bit more erratic.
The interval allowed the team to take a collective breath and say ‘right, let’s do this’. They did it moments after half-time, taking the game to Rangers again and getting their reward in Tom Rogic’s opening goal. For a period Rangers were given hope, belief, even optimism. It was a fleeting feeling, just as it was for Dundee during the week, and just as has been for all domestic opponents since Rodgers walked through the doors at Celtic Park on that sunny summer day in 2016.
At times Scott Sinclair and Patrick Roberts toyed with the Rangers full-backs, while Rogic and Stuart Armstrong overwhelmed the Rangers midfield when required. It demonstrates the current landscape in Scottish football where Celtic can travel to their arch-rivals, play at somewhere around 60 per cent and still ease to a 2-0 victory.
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Key men didn’t show for Rangers
Rangers fans were worried, as were the players. The opening 10-15 minutes were akin to watching the scariest of horror movies, yet the scary moment was yet to come. It was around the corner but still not there. Then someone pressed stop. Rangers scrapped their way into encounter, offering a threat on the break. From looking like they were going to be blitzed to enjoying a bit of control, albeit without controlling Celtic.
A key issue for Rangers when they had the ball was the transition. Too often they were too tepid with possession before looking to play Morelos who had already moved offside, wanting the ball quicker. The Colombian was excellent at times in the first half. However, he lacked a connection with his team-mates, the support wasn’t there.
Daniel Candeias faced a different animal in Kieran Tierney while Josh Windass put in a performance which epitomised his time at Ibrox: promise in the first half, anonymity in the second. Graham Dorrans didn’t step up to the mark. He didn’t look like a player who had played 142 matches in the Premier League, caught between pushing forward and protecting the defence. He did neither, therefore offering nothing. As for Carlos Pena, it is becoming increasingly curious as to why so much money was spent on a player when it is taking him so long to get up to speed.
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Stuart Armstrong at his buccaneering best
Question marks can be asked, and understandably so, about Armstrong on the European stage. His use of the ball is still not to that level, an aspect of his game he should improve with the aid of Scott Brown and Oliiver Ntcham. But in domestic action he is the ideal midfield Action Man. Against deep defences the former Dundee United man can bludgeon his way through thanks to powerful running, acceleration and game intelligence.
More than once he combined with Tom Rogic as the duo played around and through a Rangers midfield which was unsure what was required of them in the opening stages. They were pressing halfheartedly, putting no pressure on the ball but simultaneously not remaining tight and compact. It played into Celtic’s hands. Armstrong was bombing into the spaces ahead of him, leaving Graham Dorrans to eat his dust.
As the game progressed Armstrong tempered his attacking instincts and provided a stronger midfield platform as Celtic managed the game.
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The chasm still exists
Despite the money spent in the transfer window, Rangers’ squad is still lacking both quality and depth. One only has to look at the defence and options on the bench to see that. Yet, Rangers can’t expect to get close to Celtic any time soon unless there is serious investment. It is a case of small steps. However, what is frustrating for a support base who believe they should be competing, winning and lifting trophies is that there are a lot of steps to make. A LOT.
The scoreline may have been closer compared to the last time the clubs met but a chasm between Scotland’s giants still exists. Again, that comes back to how the money has been invested. Morelos has been an instant hit, Ryan Jack has been very good, while Dorrans has been good. Bruno Alves hasn’t been as good as some pundits may have you believe, while Fabio Cardoso is not the answer, no matter the question.
Then there is the presence of Kenny Miller, Lee Hodson, Jason Holt. Decent enough Scottish Premiership players but upgrades are required. There is a long way to go, this is a long-term rebuilding job. Patience is required, small steps are necessary. Rangers are still at the start of a long and winding road, as Sheryl Crow puts it.
While an abundance of issues exist amongst the Rangers squad, the only real issue at Celtic Park is how to give the abundance of talent game time. Now that Dedryck Boyata is back alongside Jozo Simunovic, a significant headache has eased.
Trying to pick a Celtic XI from game to game is nigh-on impossible due to the options available, both in terms of personnel and system. They can play one, two, three up front. At the back? two, three, four or five if needs be. Domestically they can keep teams at arm’s length with controlling possession or they can simply go for the jugular.
When Rodgers brought Moussa Dembele on with ten minutes left it would have been no surprise if he gave Pedro Caixinha a wink, ‘look what I have in reserve, pal’. The two substitutes before that? Callum McGregor and James Forrest. Then a whole host of talent was unused.
Any club hoping for Celtic taking their eye off domestic games with their European involvement is kidding themselves.