When Celtic’s team was leaked online on Friday evening, it didn’t augur well for their capacity to keep things tight against Rangers on Saturday afternoon.
Having given away secrets, they then gave away goals. “Somebody inside the club has done us in,” said Neil Lennon. “It’s disgusting.”
The manager was talking about sensitive information making its way into the public domain ahead of time, but he might as well have been referencing the insipid performance his players delivered, along with a managerial slackness in trying to change it midstream.
For the champions, depleted in numbers and shorn of inspiration, this was a dismal loss.
Even allowing for the absence of so many go-to men, the failure to have a single shot on target at home in the big derby was an illustration of their passiveness. Rangers won at their ease with two goals from a centre-half, both of them from point-blank range in the heart of a confused Celtic defence.
For the second game in a row in the east end of Glasgow, Rangers won. There was silence at Celtic Park, but there’ll have been thunder where their fans reside.
Not since Walter Smith was in his pomp in 1994 had they achieved back-to-back away wins in the derby. And it was easy – painfully easy from a Celtic perspective and gloriously easy when viewed from the blue side of the city.
Irrelevant or shifting of the sands?
The champions will have to try to rationalise it and there are obvious way of doing so.
Odsonne Edouard, a totem of this fixture, was missing. Ryan Christie, their most creative midfielder, was also ruled out. James Forrest, another who might have made a difference, was not there through injury. Hatem Elhamed, Christopher Jullien and Nir Bitton were also not around. Half a team gone.
Some Celtic fans will factor that heavy casualty list into the equation before reacting. Others might be more minded to conclude that even when making allowances it was still a worrying effort that raises questions about their ability to go all the way to the fabled 10-in-a-row.
It’s crazily early to be drawing conclusions, of course. We’ve been here before, after all. We’ve seen Rangers ransack Celtic Park in the very recent past only to fall over their own feet when the pressure hit.
Only time will tell whether this was as irrelevant to the big picture as the last Rangers win at Parkhead or whether it represented a true shifting of the sands.
Rangers had the energy and the organisation, the savvy and the skill. Gerrard hasn’t won a trophy but he has consigned the days of heavy Old Firm losses to the rubbish bin. In this head-to-head, at least, he’s turned the tide.
They unpicked Celtic for the first time with a precise free-kick from James Tavernier that was delivered right out in front of Connor Goldson, just asking to be nutted home.
The fact that the Celtic defence couldn’t handle the centre-half and the Celtic goalkeeper, Vasilas Barkas, was so weak in dealing with his header caused Lennon some alarm. He paid more than £4m for the Greek.
The second goal, the one that really broke whatever fight Celtic were hoping to muster, was almost the game in microcosm. It began when Rangers won the ball down the left side in their own half. Ryan Kent was put away, with only a fine covering tackle from Kristoffer Ajer denying him a shot.
The ensuing corner was when it all happened. When the ball travelled from left to right, Glen Kamara and Scott Arfield cut Celtic open. The play went from Kamara to Arfield to Kamara to Arfield to Alfredo Morelos and back to Arfield, with Celtic struggling to stay with their movement.
This was Rangers doing to Celtic what Celtic have so often done to Rangers in the seasons before Gerrard arrived.
Arfield swung in the cross and, if Goldson got a little lucky when his first effort was blocked, he took advantage. A two-goal buffer was what Rangers deserved at that point.
There was indecision from Celtic – and precious little response. Playing three at the back has served them well on many occasions, but Rangers troubled them down the flanks. They were slow to change the system, slow to send for the cavalry off the bench, just slow.
Later, Lennon spoke about his absent players and the not fully-fit players he had to bring on, and that leak. He sounded like an exasperated man who was about to utter the words, ‘Just one of those days’.
‘Emphatic win will embolden Rangers’
Who knows what meaning it has or will have in the months ahead? Is this incarnation of Gerrard’s team the real deal or are they just another version of the Bears who cried wolf? Have they learned the lesson of their implosions in the past two seasons?
Celtic folk might comfort themselves with the memory of the Rangers challenge disappearing in a puff of smoke in the previous two campaigns, but sooner or later the message behind those collapses might be heeded by these players. Taking their fall on faith is a dangerous game for any Celtic fan.
This emphatic win will embolden Gerrard’s team. The reality is that Celtic have never been a big issue for him since he came to Scotland. That’s never where the damage has been done. He’s managed Rangers in eight Old Firm games and it’s 4-4 in victories and 8-7 in Rangers’ favour in terms of goals.
They were the better side on Saturday, the better side in December when winning 2-1, and the better side in the League Cup final last year even though they lost. In four of the past five derbies, you could argue that Rangers were the superior side – on the balance of play.
Celtic have not been the problem. It’s the others who have tormented them; Kilmarnock, Hamilton, Hearts. This win has added to their momentum and their self-belief. You could see it.
The lack of crowd fervour was definitely part of it, but on full-time they didn’t whoop and holler like they did after their December win, Gerrard didn’t scream and shout down the camera lens, there wasn’t a great outpouring of emotion after a job well done.
That’s maybe a sign of a maturing team. No over-celebration, no bombast.
That’s 14 games played in all competitions this season with 12 wins, two draws, and 11 clean sheets. Impressive foundations are being built by Gerrard.
With Rangers, it’s all in the mind. On the field, they’re good enough to get the better of Celtic on a given day. They’ve shown it enough times. In the head is where the challenges have existed.
You can’t say with any certainty that the mental strength they showed in abundance on Saturday is now a permanent thing, but if it is – if they really have grown up as a team – then this battle at the top is going to be compelling.