Rangers showed no fear
In both halves Rangers went right at their heavily-favoured hosts. They pressed through the centre, forcing opposing defenders into mistakes, and got their full-backs high up the park to support in attack.
The only way they were able to implement such a gameplan and avoid being slaughtered on the counter-attack was to show the kind of determination evident on the Celtic Park turf. Guys like Jason Holt and James Tavernier seemed to be playing three positions at once at times during the game, especially in the second period where the visitors penned Celtic in their own half for a 15-minute period.
Once again we have been presented with evidence which suggests Graeme Murty knows what it takes, both in terms of tactics and motivation, to get his side performing in the bigger games. Now he must get the players to replicate this kind of energy and urgency when it’s a routine league match against the likes of Hamilton, Dundee and Kilmarnock. Only then will Murty be in with a chance of holding on to his job past next summer.
Kranjcar starting was a case of needs must
It made little sense to construct a gameplan to press Celtic in the centre and have Niko Kranjcar at the heart of it. The 33-year-old Croat wasn’t exactly the most dynamic or industrious of players before he suffered a season-ending knee injury last October, and you could count the number of good games he’s had on one hand since he returned to the side.
While it wasn’t exclusively his fault, Kranjcar played a part in Celtic enjoying their best period of this game between the 10-minute mark and half-time. Rangers couldn’t make the ball stick up front as Alfredo Morelos got caught offside with increasing frequency, allowing the ball to quickly come back toward an under pressure defence. Even when the Colombian managed to get his positioning right, the visitors surrendered possession still too easily, with Kranjcar often guilty of giving the ball away. Meanwhile, his marker Scott Brown grew into the game and was allowed to dictate the tempo and flow of his side’s attack without too much resistance.
A quick look at the Rangers bench told the viewer everything he needed to know as to why the player remained on the park for the second half, and why he lasted 80 minutes in total: there were few viable alternatives. It was either youngster Jamie Barjonas, who lacks the (supposed) creativity of a Kranjcar in the final third, or Carlos Pena. The Mexican is probably the only player at the club more erratic than the man he eventually replaced with ten minutes left.
Celtic’s stars didn’t rise to the occasion
Rangers stopped pressing towards the end of the first half. Whether this was by design or the team just naturally dropped back due to the pressure they were under, we don’t know. But there was no doubt they were fortunate to make it to the break at 0-0. James Forrest was denied by a good stop from Wes Foderingham, though he arguably should have done better, while Moussa Dembele went close on two separate occasions. Scott Sinclair then missed a terrific opportunity on the stroke of half-time.
It should have been more of the same after the break, but in addition to the away side raising their game, Celtic’s supporters saw a number of their favourites failing even to match their first-half display.
Kieran Tierney all but disappeared as an attacking threat, Stuart Armstrong became infatuated with recklessly getting the ball forward as quickly as possible - an issue for Callum McGregor all game - while Scott Brown found Jason Holt and Ross McCrorie constantly in his face. Without the service, Forrest, Sinclair and Dembele vanished from the action, and it was no surprise to see the latter two eventually hooked.
Ntcham should probably have started
It wasn’t so much of an issue in the opening period, where Celtic eventually settled down and began to dominate possession. But in the second half the hosts were crying out for someone to get his foot on the ball, get his head up and look to make a pass first and foremost. Celtic had allowed the game to played in the manner their rivals wanted. They were beginning to hurry everything in an attacking sense and, instead of breaking down Rangers, saw the pressure increasing on their own bench as a result.
Ntcham undoubtedly improved his side in this regard when he was introduced (for Sinclair) on 72 minutes. Just having that extra player in the centre who wanted to take a breather in possession and make the smart pass rather than the quick one helped the team settle down, and they were arguably the stronger side from his addition to the game’s conclusion.
While it was a curious decision to omit him from the starting XI, given his recent form, waiting until there were 18 minutes left was probably Brendan Rodgers biggest error in the match. Dembele was struggling in attack, but without much to feed off, it was always likely Leigh Griffiths would have similar frustrations.
The young centre-backs shone brightest
Kristoffer Ajer represented one of few positives for the home support as the 19-year-old played with poise and confidence alongside some shaky displays from his back-four partners. There were a couple of occasions where Morelos managed to get in between the Norwegian and Dedryck Boyata, but the older defender could easily take the majority of blame for failing to properly communicate with the youngster, who would have had the striker on his blind side as he eyed the cross. All in all it was an encouraging display and should cement regular involvement, at least in a rotation sense, between now and the end of the season.
David Bates, meanwhile, turned the early injury to Bruno Alves into a positive with a man-of-the-match display. Unlike Ajer, who shows tremendous composure in possession, Bates’ strengths lie in his pure defensive ability. Against Celtic he demonstrated terrific anticipation, positioning and heading ability to continually thwart the hosts, especially as they attempted to ramp up the pressure in the dying minutes.
Considering the fact he was thrown into the game midway through the first half, and had to adjust to the speed of the game on the fly, he thoroughly deserved his post-match bottle of Champagne.