• Gaudie Sports

Superb Celtic seize initiative in title race

It took no more than five minutes for Reo Hatate to give a strong indication of how the latest Old Firm derby was going to end. By half-time, it was a dead certainty.

By Daniel Petersen

Credit: REUTERS/Russell Cheyne

This game was reminiscent of the most recent Manchester Derby, which finished 2-0 to the noisy neighbours, but could honestly have been a cricket score. An undoubtedly talented Rangers team was held at arm’s length by a better-coached, better-motivated Celtic, particularly throughout the first half.

It was especially striking how little pressure Celtic were under in their own half of the pitch, and how much they exerted at the other end. That coaching extended even to the ball-boys, who had clearly been told to deliver the ball as quick as possible: every time the ball went out for a goal kick, Joe Hart had it back in play before you could say “in the mixer,” but was otherwise untroubled. By contrast, Allan McGregor spent much of the game pulling off worldies or punting the ball at a green and white shirt with very little in between.

To give Rangers some credit, they were better in the second half, which is about as low a bar as could conceivably be cleared. Van Bronckhorst’s triple substitution helped a touch, but truth be told, the improvement was mainly because Celtic dropped off, simply not needing to maintain the pace.

Perhaps the most concerning single event of the game for Rangers was the third goal, scored by Liel Abada, in an ocean of space in the box. For a defence that only last season set a new British record of 13 goals against across a season, this was a frankly shameful goal to concede, though it should be noted that the defence has seen a significant drop-off in performance this season, from 0.34 goals against per game to 0.78. This trend started under Steven Gerrard, so cannot be said to be Van Brockhorst’s fault by any means, but it is still deeply worrying, and will have to be rectified. Results like this and the 3-3 draw at Ross County are exactly the kinds of results that do not happen to the great title-winning teams.

Having said all of this, now is not the time to anoint Celtic as champions-elect. While they have undoubtedly laid down an ominous marker with a scintillating performance, they still score fewer goals overall than Rangers do and there is still a way to go in the season. Nonetheless, Rangers will need to pull their fingers out quickly, and they have some excruciating fixtures coming up, against Hearts and Hibs at Ibrox and Dundee at Tannadice. They really cannot afford another big loss, or even a bad draw, if Celtic kick on like they could, having just cleared a minefield of fixtures themselves and come out top of the table.

The Hoops have seized the initiative, and it will fall to the Gers to show that they can live up to their previous achievements.