Andrew Smith: Rangers resurrect ghost of 2002/03 title race - and not even Morelos red card can overshadow achievement
It says everything about the magnitude of what Rangers accomplished yesterday that even the latest red card for Alfredo Morelos was merely a sideshow.
The Colombian has been so often the headline act for Rangers, almost unfailing for the right reasons in this 28-goal campaign. In the Ibrox club’s first Old Firm victory at Celtic Park since October 2010, though, even his latest transgression couldn’t claim the spotlight. Not when his team-mates, and Steven Gerrard, had such a glow to bask in.
Morelos’ dismissal by referee Kevin Clancy after a dive in added time incurred a second caution - which led to it all kicking off on the touchline as Rangers’ first-team coach Michael Beale was also brandished a red - felt like no more than a bit-part pantomine which was never going to obscure the serious, heayweight drama that had preceded it.
Rangers followed a script familiar from only three weeks before. They just produced a different ending that opens up in the genuine possibility of new chapter wherein they no longer have exist on a different page from their all-conquering rivals.
The success for Gerrard’s men, and the manner in which they fully earned it, was described as “a big moment” by the Rangers manager. He could have employed the word “huge” and the term would have seemed an understatment.
For, as with the Betfred Cup final on December 12, Rangers were superior in all departments to their hosts, exhibiting a cohesiveness, strategic nous and, as Neil Lennon lamented, a robustness that their rivals lacked. On this occasion, though, and unlike at Hampden, they refused to be mastered by any misfortune.
Celtic could kid themselves that it was they who were not favoured by the fates, as were cruel to Rangers in the cup final.
Yet, even if the situation flipped with them missing a penalty this time around - Ryan Christie’s weak effort saved by Allan McGregor at 0-0 - and having two efforts blocked on the goalline, signs that Rangers now firmly have the measure of their ancient adversaries are far from restricted to their collisions this month.
Celtic largely suffocated, what for them, was a handily lifeless Ibrox side on their home patch in September to secure a 2-0 triumph. However, this stands as the only one of the past five meetings of Scottish football’s biggest beasts that Rangers haven’t been able to bare their teeth to put the frighteners on a club that had previously been eating them up in the fixture.
Gerrard’s men took them apart in winning the Christmas period fixture at Ibrox this time a year ago. Celtic may have prevailed in the March against a 10-man Gers team, but even that day they were outplayed for long spells before no answer to a determined Rangers in the dead rubber meeting between them in Govan in May.
In the Betfred Cup final, and now yesterday, the nine-in-a-row chasing Scottish champions were reduced to looking rushed, weak and unsure of how to prise themselves from the grip placed upon them by an opponent that haven’t just closed a gap but looked capable of creating one in their favour when going toe-to-toe with a team that have for so long had no equal in racking up an unprecedented ten domestic honours.
Over the course of the past 12 months, there has been an almighty rush in Celtic circles to dismiss any of this evidence as being owed to exceptional circumstances.
In particular the absence of Odsonne Edouard, sidelined through injury for the Ibrox defeat last December, and for the first 59 minutes of the cup final this month was cited as the principal reason Rangers were able to prevent Celtic finding any rhythm - never mind that Gerrard has presided over one of the best first halves of a top flight season Rangers have made in the past five decades.
The Edouard pivot was laid to rest yesterday as the home side suffered a first meaningful home league defeat since December 2015.
The Frenchman may have inadvertently netted - a Callum McGregor shot deflecting off his hand for a 42nd minute equaliser that by the letter of the law should not have stood - but he could not alter the pattern that has so often developed when Scotland’s big hitters have slugged it out in recent times.
Lennon bemoaned his side’s lack of “physicality”, which has become a feature of these encounters. It is difficult to see how he addresses this other than through acquisitions in the January transfer window.
Any signings won’t necessarily alter the fact that Rangers now appear emboldened where not so long ago they were cowed when pitted against their rivals.
The pair’s ability to knock off the wins against all other teams in the Premiership has ensured this season has been remarkably similiar to the 2002/03 campaign.
Then, as now, Rangers, by running through the league card and making the breakthrough in the derby, found the means to bring clammy palms to a Celtic side that had seemed to be on an entirely different plane to them only 18 months early. And, notably, it was from these moistened hands that Celtic then allowed the title to slip.