How Rangers' pre-match plans went out window as Celtic show this is no ordinary team

Michael Beale’s pre-match instructions could not have been clearer. Keep it tight. Having picked an experienced team, he would have expected not to have to spell it out to his players.

But he would have done so, nonetheless. Old Firm fixtures are unique affairs. Even the most seasoned pro can get caught out.

While Celtic manager Ange Postecoglou pitched Alistair Johnston into the battle, the Canadian international joining an exclusive club of those who have made their debut in the fixture, Beale did what he said he would do and stuck with an older, possibly wiser brigade.

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Only Ben Davies was sampling an Old Firm game for the first time and at 27, the manager would hope the defender had enough about him to prevail.

Alfredo Morelos heads at goal during the Cinch Scottish Premiership match between Rangers FC and Celtic FC at  on January 02, 2023 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)Alfredo Morelos heads at goal during the Cinch Scottish Premiership match between Rangers FC and Celtic FC at  on January 02, 2023 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)
Alfredo Morelos heads at goal during the Cinch Scottish Premiership match between Rangers FC and Celtic FC at on January 02, 2023 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

Go out there and express yourself, Beale likely urged his players. The manager would have also urged the team to atone for the drubbing inflicted by their rivals in September, a game he watched before taking charge of Queens Park Rangers against Swansea during his short-lived spell in charge of the Loftus Road club.

But, above all, the new manager would have stressed again and again. Do. Not. Lose. An. Early. Goal. He knew what that would mean. It would mean having to score at least twice to collect all three points, which is something even the dogs in the street understood Rangers needed to to retain any further interest in the title race.

It is to the team’s - and Beale’s - credit that they did manage to score two goals to overturn the lead they had presented on a plate to Celtic within five minutes. A terrible cross-field pass from Alfredo Morelos was compounded by a weak challenge by James Tavernier on Daizen Maeda and the Celtic forward sprinted through to shoot past Allan McGregor. Beale stared at his shoes. What had he said about keeping it tight at the start? Morelos, meanwhile, sank to the ground. Plenty of Rangers fans wanted him escorted off the premises there and then.

It is a tribute to Morelos that he managed to redeem himself to the extent that when he was replaced by Scott Wright with ten minutes left, with his side 2-1 to the good, he was actually applauded off. He had, though, missed at least two very scoreable chances. One, a header from Tavernier’s cornier, was of the particularly glaring variety.

The home team looked shaken for a spell following Maeda’s strike. But some anxiety also began to creep into the play of the visitors after Greg Taylor, who had looked as assured as ever, was replaced due to injury. Josip Juranovic was sent on. The Croatian full back duly demonstrated how World Cup heroics count for naught in the heat of an Old Firm battle. In fairness, he was playing out of position on the left.

Rangers took advantage of Celtic’s sudden uncertainty to the extent that they were perhaps unlucky to still be trailing at half time. Joe Hart tipped a Ryan Kent effort onto the post.

They continued this improvement in the second half. Fashion Sakala was the catalyst for the comeback, setting up Kent for a trademark curled finish two minutes after the re-start. Sakala then won a penalty after Carl Starfelt whipped his leg away near the byline. Tavernier shot high into Hart's right corner.

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Beale barely flinched on the sidelines. He knew there was a long way to go - well over half an hour - and he was also aware of the opposition's strength.

Celtic might have faded since taking the game to Rangers in the opening half an hour, but they would come again. "Good teams always do," observed Beale later. Not-quite-so-good teams are also vulnerable to being hit by a sucker-punch.

Jota’s arrival for Maeda had injected some extra zest into Celtic. Ibrox hummed with tension – and no little trepidation. Rangers survived two VAR checks for handballs by Connor Goldson.

The home fans were being lured into thinking that despite their team’s obvious deficiencies, some inspiration on the part of Sakala might yet be enough to get Rangers into a position where they could at least ask some questions of their rivals during the remainder of the season.

But the three points so yearned for was reduced to a scarcely helpful one in the blink of an eye when Kyogo Furuhashi pounced on 88 minutes.

Rangers compounded their earlier slackness by breaking another golden rule of football by sitting further and further back in a desperate bid to protect their precious – and slender – advantage. Beale later attributed some of the blame for this on the “trauma” the players have experienced so far this season. Results such as 1-7 against Liverpool have left a mental scar, as has the 4-0 reversal suffered against Celtic in the first meeting between the teams.

Whatever the reason, the late concession of such a crucial goal was devastating for the home supporters, as well as being probably ruinous as far as Rangers' desire to wrest the title back from Celtic is concerned.

Aaron Mooy combined with fellow substitute Jota down the left and when the ball eventually broke to Kyogo, he was in the right place at the right time to slam it into the net via a slight deflection off Kent.

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The silence in the home stands told its own story. Only two minutes of regulation time remained although referee John Beaton did add another seven on. That might have been long enough to plunder two goals against Aberdeen in Beale's second match in charge. But Celtic are not Aberdeen. They are not like anyone else in Scottish football, as they demonstrated here by going to the well once more.

There was always a suspicion Kyogo might be keeping a first goal against Rangers for a very special occasion. While it wasn’t an actual title-winning strike, it was good as near to one.