The phrase “bottled it” is thrown around too readily in football, often without merit. Only one team can win a football match and it is too much of a lazy explanation to point an accusatory finger at the losers of a high-profile contest and question their nerve. This was not one of the occasions.
For Rangers this one was there for the taking. An Old Firm atmosphere is always electric, but the hosts had turned it up a couple of notches for this one. For the first time since their Scottish Cup semi-final victory in 2016 – the last time they tasted victory against their rivals – they were actually in good form going into a derby match. Josh Windass’ early goal sparked delirium in the stands and it was a similar story when Daniel Candeias, pictured, shot them back in front.
While they were on the back foot for stages, they played with real purpose and menace on the counter and looked a threat with every attack. The disappointment of being pegged back twice was washed away when Jozo Simunovic was shown a straight red card for elbowing Alfredo Morelos. The crowd roared, both in appreciation of the decision and in anticipation of what was to come: surely this was their time.
However, suddenly having the impetus thrust upon the home players had a two-pronged effect. It galvanised Celtic’s defensive efforts after the much-maligned unit had struggled through a shaky opening half and it pushed the weight of expectation on to the hosts. The onus was on them to go and win the game and they failed to respond.
Suddenly the play was laborious, touches were heavy and final balls into the penalty area often missed their intended target by a good distance. Even before Odsonne Edouard struck the winning goal, there was a feeling of apprehension around Ibrox as the crowd realised the players had not responded to the sending-off with the same confidence boost which they had initially enjoyed.
To credit the visitors, the home side may still have managed to force the ball over the line had the away manager responded to the red in a manner expected of him.
Buoyed by the confidence generated from eight derbies without defeat, Brendan Rodgers was both reactive and proactive, deciding against reshaping his side with the sole function of seeing out a draw.
Tom Rogic may have come off for Jack Hendry, ensuring Celtic had the full complement of defenders once more, but instead of going for two banks of four and Moussa Dembele isolated in attack, the head coach instead pushed James Forrest up top and moved the midfield into a diamond, minus the tip.
Those attacking intentions became evident further when Edouard replaced Forrest. For a game so precariously in the balance, away to their biggest rivals and closest challengers, with the existence of a bona fide title race on the line, this was an incredibly gutsy call by Rodgers. But it paid off in spades when the French striker produced the goods less than two minutes after entering the play.
As the Rangers players left the park there was a sizable number of supporters who applauded their efforts. Given the capitulations of the Pedro Caixinha era, this was at least an improvement of sorts. But, in the end, all the match did was underline the gap which still exists between Scotland’s biggest clubs.