The Ibrox side had better hope it is not a sprint to the finishing line because if Wednesday night is anything to go by, they will be left behind in a cloud of not just pyrotechnic smoke.
Celtic kicked dust in their rivals’ face while displaying dynamism that could be set to carry them to the Scottish title. They certainly have the momentum now.
The first midweek Old Firm derby since 2011 had everything except away supporters, which once again seemed a matter to lament. That impasse isn’t likely to be solved anytime soon. Having watched on television as their team seemed to be caught out by the intensity of their ‘welcome’ from the stands on Wednesday, the Rangers fans will be keen to ensure Ibrox is as hostile as possible when Celtic are the visitors in the spring. They just won’t be able to tap into the added energy that seems to come from playing under floodlights.
The scheduling – or at least re-scheduling – of what was originally meant to be a New Year fixture, kicking off at noon, played into Celtic’s hands in this Japanese-inspired remake of Fright Night. In saying that, Rangers are just as capable of conceding three first-half goals in the afternoon as well. Giovanni van Bronckhorst knows that as well as anyone. He was sitting in the stand awaiting his unveiling as Martin Boyle put the Ibrox side to the sword in Hibs’ Premier Sports semi-final victory at Hampden Park in November.
This is not a Rangers side whose flaws have been suddenly exposed in a prime-time TV slot for all to see; they’ve been evident for weeks, even months. Confront the Ibrox side with pace, as Hibs were able to do when they could call upon Boyle, and there’s every possibility of inflicting damage. Ange Postecoglou will just need to hope he doesn’t suffer the same fate as Jack Ross, who was sacked a few weeks after he dismantled Rangers with such a tactically sound game plan. Somehow it seems unlikely.
Although we mustn’t forget those Kenny Dalglish posters he was quick to reveal he had on his childhood bedroom wall in Melbourne following his arrival at Parkhead, there’s something cheering about someone who grew up on the other side of the world being able to deliver a team that seems more rooted in the ‘Celtic Way’ than any in recent decades. Even Martin O'Neill and Brendan Rodgers' teams could not be described as swashbuckling.
By putting the emphasis on speed and identifying players such as Reo Hatate who can rotate positions, the Greek-born Australian is helping exercise memories such as a clearly out-of- shape Leigh Griffiths being sent on to try and save the day against Ross County a year ago this month. The very idea that the former Scotland striker might have had a part to play under Postecoglou – it was a matter of some debate in the summer - seems ludicrous now.
Shape up or ship out. Angeball doesn’t indulge malingerers. It doesn’t have time for those not prepared to stick on a pair of compression socks and board a flight to Scotland, via Amsterdam, from Tokyo hours after playing in a World Cup qualifier and then come on as substitute for their club the very next day in one of the most frenetic games of the season. It wasn’t as if Daizen Maeda played only the dying moments. He was given nearly half an hour.
Rangers were the ones seemingly suffering from jetlag. The ballboys and girls were not the only ones guilty of holding onto the ball too long.
Maeda would have struggled to snooze on the bench even if he wanted to. The noise and disco lights helped animate Celtic – at one point the Rangers players were plunged into darkness as a green beam lit up the home players’ pre-match huddle in what proved very effective theatre.
Rangers will now seek to make the atmosphere at their home fixture against Celtic on April 3 as partisan as possible. The manner of Celtic’s victory in midweek raised the possibility that it might be too late by then. They could be four points clear by the time Rangers next kick a ball. Although anything can still happen, and it must be remembered that Celtic toiled to break down Dundee United a few days ago, there's only so much Aaron Ramsey can be expected to do.
A penny for Steven Gerrard’s thoughts as he watched the clash unfold. He was not among many of his English football-based colleagues who took to social media to share how much they enjoyed the spectacle. He might have been alarmed, possibly slightly embarrassed – and, ultimately, relieved. This is a team that had become enervated on his watch. He could see the signs.
Rangers conceded twice at home against Ross County in Gerrard’s last game. That was the afternoon when the then manager hailed a “world-class goal” from Ryan Kent, who put his side 2-1 up with a swerving, dipping shot. The Rangers winger proved less potent against Celtic on a night when his side really needed such heroics against their greatest rivals in a far more challenging environment.
Already in the wrong part of town, it was as if Rangers had stumbled into the wrong party on the wrong day. They were ambushed by a man in a mask and his mates rather than cake.
It was one of those nights when the game commanded the attention of those elsewhere. Barnsley v Cardiff City and Huddersfield Town against Derby County could not quite match the appeal and so observers south of the Border were inclined to tune in.
They heard Ally McCoist make some unusually damning comments. He described both Amad Diallo and Fashion Sakala, the player who replaced the on-loan Manchester United winger in the second half, as “lightweight”. Even Andy Walker, his co-pundit, seemed slightly taken aback. “Say it as it is, Ally…”
If it's time to cut to the chase, then we might as well say it: Rangers look very, very ordinary.