ANY notion that the Old Firm, warts and all, do not bring something special to the Scottish football calendar was dispelled in style by a spell-binding and implausibly dramatic episode of the country’s greatest rivalry.
On a day which may have serious implications for Ronny Deila’s job security as Celtic manager, Rangers relished the finest day yet of their rejuvenation under Mark Warburton as they booked a return to Hampden for the Scottish Cup final against Hibernian on 21 May.
For only the second time in the 128-year history of the fixture, the outcome was decided by a penalty shoot-out, with Rangers holding their nerve best to claim a victory their overall performance merited.
Celtic, whose lack of intensity and desire for much of the afternoon will be regarded as a damning and potentially final indictment of Deila’s management, have now lost five of their last seven semi-finals at Hampden.
Despite twice recovering a deficit yesterday, with goals from Kenny Miller and Barrie McKay for Rangers cancelled out by Erik Sviatchenko and Tom Rogic, they were unable to avoid a defeat which will surely prompt their major shareholder Dermot Desmond – who made a rare visit to watch them yesterday – to consider Deila’s position.
Celtic certainly require improvement ahead of the renewed and robust challenge they can expect to face from Warburton’s side in the top flight next season.
Rangers caused Celtic more trouble in the opening couple of minutes of this game than they had throughout the whole of the utterly one-sided League Cup semi-final between the clubs last season. That set the tone for a bright and enterprising display from Warburton’s side who were true to his pre-match pledge that they would not compromise the adventurous style of play they have adopted throughout the campaign.
Celtic, so used to dominating possession in the majority of their Premiership fixtures, found themselves on the back foot early on as Miller forced a fine save from Craig Gordon when he latched on to a clever pass from the outstanding McKay in the sixth minute.
In response, Scott Brown missed a premium chance to put Celtic in front four minutes later but on a day when little went right for their out-of-sorts captain, he drilled his right-foot shot wide from around 14 yards.
Rangers were well worth the 16th-minute lead provided by Miller. Brown’s weak clearance of a James Tavernier free-kick fell to Dom Ball who quickly fed Andy Halliday on the right. His cross looked harmless until Brown inadvertently turned it into the path of Miller, who swept his 19th goal of the season beyond Gordon from close range.
Celtic were clearly rattled and struggled to bring any sustained cohesion to their passing. They made an early change when Dedryck
Boyata, who had endured a torrid opening 25 minutes, was replaced in defence by pre-match injury doubt Sviatchenko.
The big Dane brought greater solidity for Deila’s men, who should have equalised through Patrick Roberts. The on-loan Manchester City winger was one of Celtic’s brighter performers but he will be haunted for some time by an inexplicable miss which saw him slice the ball wide of an empty net from a couple of yards out after a Leigh Griffiths shot had rebounded off Foderingham’s left-hand post.The jeers of the Celtic supporters were primarily directed towards Deila when the half-time whistle blew, leaving the Norwegian facing the most critical team talk of his tenure.
He duly got a positive response from his team, whose aggressive start to the second half was rewarded when Sviatchenko made it
1-1 five minutes after the restart, rising above Danny Wilson to meet a Roberts corner and head firmly beyond Foderingham.
But rather than being able to seize the initiative from that point, Celtic’s greater share of possession in the second 45 minutes was not matched by any greater threat or dominance as an attacking force.
Nir Bitton missed the best chance to win the tie in regulation time, heading over from a Roberts free-kick, but Rangers were more than worth taking it into an extra 30 minutes.
With Nicky Clark on for Miller, the veteran striker having run himself to a standstill, Rangers regained the lead six minutes into extra-time with a stunning strike from McKay. He was fortunate the opportunity came his way from a disputed throw-in on the right which should have been awarded to Celtic but was given to Rangers by referee Craig Thomson, who errantly overruled his assistant.
That said, McKay still had plenty to do as he engineered a yard of space beyond Brown’s challenge and smashed a right-foot shot beyond Gordon’s right-hand high into the net from around 25 yards.
It was a goal fit to win any cup tie but there were still plenty of this remarkable script left to unfold. Celtic equalised for the second time a minute into the second period of extra-time, Rogic meeting Kieran Tierney’s cutback to drive a precise left-foot shot wide of Foderingham’s left hand.
Celtic came closest to a winner before the need for penalties with Griffiths watching in agony as his 118th-minute free-kick was touched on to the bar by Foderingham, the ball rebounding against the keeper’s back and drifting inches wide.
So, for the first time since the 1974 Drybrough Cup final, we had an Old Firm penalty shoot-out. Halliday and
Charlie Mulgrew confidently converted their teams’ first penalties, before Tavernier and Callum McGregor both failed.
The pattern continued as McKay and Bitton scored, then Clark and Brown were denied by saves from Gordon and Foderingham.
The next five kicks – from Lee Wallace, Gedion Zelalem and Nicky Law for Rangers and Griffiths and Mikael Lustig for Celtic – were all scored before Rogic suffered the agony of missing the decisive penalty which he scooped over the crossbar.
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