How Rangers took a massive stride towards 55th league title with win over Celtic
On a day which saw Rangers somehow survive unscathed from their poorest 45 minutes of the season, they emerged with one hand on the Scottish Premiership trophy they are seeking to wrench from Celtic’s grasp for the first time in a decade.
Callum McGregor’s own goal 20 minutes from time leaves Steven Gerrard’s side 19 points clear at the top of the table with 16 games left to play.
Regardless of the three games in hand Celtic still have, it’s an advantage this version of Gerrard’s Rangers are not about to surrender.
This was the third year in a row they have won the festive period Old Firm showdown but this time they have a margin for error in the title race they could only have dreamed of at the start of the season.
There were certainly elements of this performance which must be addressed by Gerrard and his coaching staff, even allowing for an improved display after the break which saw them able to take advantage of Nir Bitton’s straight red card for a challenge on Alfredo Morelos.
But this will surely be looked back upon as the result which ended Celtic’s bid for 10-in-a-row and ensured Rangers will be celebrating title number 55 in May.
Rangers fortunate not to trail at the break
There was a lack of both urgency and fluency in Rangers’ play from the opening moments, establishing a pattern of control and dominance by Celtic which Gerrard’s men struggled to disrupt.
Rangers could certainly consider themselves hugely fortunate still to be on level terms at the end of a largely one-sided first half in the champions’ favour.
Accuracy and sharpness of passing have been the hallmarks of Rangers’ most effective work this season but they were knocked out of their stride here by opponents who appeared far hungrier for all three points.
A sloppiness in possession manifested itself far too often for Gerrard’s comfort, starting off in just the second minute when Celtic captain McGregor seized upon a loose ball to surge forward and set up a shooting chance for Odsonne Edouard which was saved by Allan McGregor.
Leon Balogun replaced Filip Helander in central defence for Rangers, presumably with a view to his greater pace helping to subdue the influence of Edouard and Leigh Griffiths.
But the Nigerian international was as culpable as anyone in the hesitant start by Rangers, his error leading to Celtic’s next sight of goal when a Griffiths shot was kept out by McGregor.
It took Rangers 20 minutes to put together a move which presented a threat to the Celtic defence. Ryan Kent and Joe Aribo linked up to create a chance for Morelos but his shot wasn’t cleanly struck and was cut out by Jeremie Frimpong.
Allan McGregor to the rescue
It was a rare moment of relief for the hosts who were grateful to the enduring brilliance of their veteran goalkeeper to prevent Griffiths giving Celtic the lead two minutes later. McGregor produced a truly top class save to turn a curling shot from the striker onto his right hand post.
Rangers continued to invite pressure upon themselves by giving the ball away cheaply, typified by slackness from the normally assured Kemar Roofe which put his team-mates in trouble and left Steven Davis with little option but to earn a booking for halting a counter attack led by Kristoffer Ajer.
Diego Laxalt had to make a well timed challenge to deny Morelos just as the striker was about to pull the trigger on the edge of the box but Rangers ended the opening 45 minutes as they had started it, on the back foot, as Bitton headed wide from a Turnbull corner.
Hagi makes a difference
Something had to change for Rangers if they hoped to turn the tide and Gerrard’s response was the introduction of Ianis Hagi for Roofe at the start of the second half.
The Romanian could feel hard done by not being in the starting line-up after his recent performances and he was quick to make an impact, bringing much needed positivity and thrust to his team as he cut inside and sent a shot swerving just wide of Vasilis Barkas’ right hand post.
Rangers were finally able to bring some rhythm to their play, keeping the ball more efficiently and moving it quicker. Morelos, who continues to wait for his first goal against Celtic, was brilliantly denied by Ajer as he got on the end of a sharp pass from Joe Aribo.
While it was now a more evenly contested affair, the dismissal of Bitton swung it decisively in Rangers’ favour.
The big Israeli international was caught on the wrong side of Morelos and hauled down the striker who still had plenty of work to do as he tried to surge towards the Celtic penalty area.
As Celtic tried to reorganise, Rangers cranked up the pressure. The outcome was the goal which may well prove to be the most pivotal in Rangers’ quest for a first title since 2011.
James Tavernier’s corner from the right took the slightest of touches off Aribo at the near post before hitting off the shoulder of McGregor to leave Barkas with no chance.
Rangers (4-3-3): McGregor, Tavernier, Goldson, Balogun, Barisic; Aribo (Barker 90+2), Davis, Kamara; Roofe (Hagi 46), Morelos (Itten 77), Kent (Zungu 87). Subs not used: McLaughlin, Bassey, Helander, Patterson, Defoe.
Celtic (4-4-2): Barkas, Frimpong, Ajer, Bitton, Laxalt; Soro (Brown 72), Christie (Elhamed 72), McGregor (Rogic 84), Turnbull (Elyounoussi 65); Griffiths (Duffy 65), Edouard. Subs not used: Hazard, Taylor, Ajeti, Ntcham.
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