Celtic forced to wait for coronation as Rangers crash title party

Ange Postecoglou’s side will have to wait a little bit longer to claim silverware as the season’s fifth and final Old Firm match showed there is very little separating Rangers and Celtic.

Sakala celebrates after equalising for Rangers in the 67th-minute. Picture: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images
Sakala celebrates after equalising for Rangers in the 67th-minute. Picture: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

What else but the soothing tones of The Carpenters to ring around Parkhead after the blood and thunder of an Old Firm draw which eased Celtic closer to reclaiming the league title? Karen Carpenter’s lyrics were not about being on top of the league, looking down on the Rangers, but around 59,000 Celtic fans altered them to exactly that as they insisted on celebrating their supremacy. Taking over as officially the best in the country is now only a matter of when, not if, even if they were denied the victory which would have confirmed the cinch Premiership is heading their way for the tenth time in 11 years. They can beat Hearts at Parkhead on Saturday to make it official but Rangers know it is over.

Jota’s early goal had Celtic on their way but for the third Old Firm game running the team which scored first was unable to go on and win. Rangers had to win to claw the gap down to three points and failure will see them surrender the title, but they took something from going down with a fight. Their character and determination showed again when Fashion Sakala rewarded a strong second half with a deserved equaliser. The derby took a while to get going but was eventually filled with incidents and spectacle. Sakala got through again to hit the post with a late chance.

As champions-elect Celtic they remain unbeaten in 29 league games since September. This was only the fourth time they had dropped points in the last seven months but they missed opportunities to build on Jota’s lead and then looked jaded and oddly hesitant in allowing Rangers to come back at them.

Jota opens the scoring for Celtic with his eighth league goal of the season. Picture: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images
Jota opens the scoring for Celtic with his eighth league goal of the season. Picture: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

The 800 Rangers fans defiantly celebrated their team’s character and determination. Poor individual performances had threatened to condemn them to a derby defeat in the league for the third time in a row. Instead the season’s fifth and final Old Firm game — two wins each and a draw – showed how little there is between the sides at their best.

Borna Barisic knows what can happen if a left-back switches off at the back post when a cross is whipped in from Celtic’s other wing: he did it when Rangers were here in February and Liel Abada ghosted past him to score. Barisic was lambasted for that and must be again for poor attention and decision-making at Celtic’s opener.

Daizen Maeda’s quick feet and movement allowed him to spin past Connor Goldson and whip a ball across the goalmouth. Barisic was slow to react and then tried to swipe at the ball with his left foot when the angle better suited his right, allowing Jota to race on to it and score. Barisic had to hang his head for it but the cross beat Calvin Bassey too and Jota’s finish with the outside of his right boot was instinctive and high quality.

Rangers needed Ryan Kent to bury a comparable opening a few minutes earlier when James Tavernier fired it over to him but Kent could only send a glancing connection wide of the back post when he should have scored. Rangers started well, imposing themselves on the game and initially choking Celtic’s midfield. Out of possession John Lundstram was on Reo Hatate and Steven Davis policed Matt O’Riley, with Scott Arfield further up to frustrate Callum McGregor. The Celtic captain hit three early passes straight to Rangers players. Kent tried a run and shot, too straight at Joe Hart, in another sign of their early encouragement as Celtic struggled to get going. In truth the sides were cancelling each other out with industry, tackling and closing down across the pitch.

Jota’s goal arrived from Celtic’s first significant attack. It empowered them and their moves became more fluid and menacing as their passes began to connect while the likes of Arfield and Sakala struggled. Hatate lifted a ball diagonally across and behind the Rangers back line for Jota to connect with a diving header just over the bar. When Celtic’s pressing then dispossessed Rangers it was Jota who floated one for Maeda. It invited a header but he feared being clattered by Allan McGregor and went for it without conviction. Celtic should have had the game — the title — done and dusted. When Hatate was allowed to run freely towards the Rangers box his low pass to O’Riley was touched on to play in Maeda for another miss, this time shooting over although he was offside.

Giovanni van Bronckhorts and Ange Postecoglou embrace. Picture: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images
Giovanni van Bronckhorts and Ange Postecoglou embrace. Picture: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

Celtic were defending comfortably until a sequence of substitutions shuffled the pack and Rangers rallied. Giovanni van Bronckhorst did not significantly weaken his team with Thursday’s Europa League semi-final against RB Leipzig in mind. It was a team picked to win.

In the second half he replaced Davis and Joe Aribo with Ryan Jack and Scott Wright. Rangers built a neat move through Wright and Arfield before Sakala exchanged a one-two with Kent. That gave Sakala the space to get away a low, hard and accurate shot which flashed just inside Joe Hart’s right hand post. Soon Sakala was wrestling off Cameron Carter-Vickers to release another shot Hart had to touch over for a corner, and then he was squandering a huge chance by hitting the foot of the post when through one-on-one. Hart also pulled off a great reaction save to deny Arfield.

Celtic looked leggy and for the second Old Firm game in a fortnight they failed to see it out from a winning position. They seemed jumpy about Rangers from the moment they equalised.

The draw was cheered by both sets of fans, neither of them prepared to give the enemy the pleasure of looking deflated. Minutes later there were angry exchanges and missile throwing back and forth from the Rangers section and the Celtic fans nearest them before the stadium finally cleared. The Carpenters’ soothing influence didn’t last long.

Celtic (4-3-3): J Hart 7 — A Ralston 6, C Carter-Vickers 7, C Starfelt 7, G Taylor 7 — M O’Riley 7 (T Rogic 61min, 6), C McGregor 7, R Hatate 7 (N Bitton 61, 7) — Jota 8, K Furuhashi 7 (G Giakoumakis 61, 6), D Maeda 7 (L Abada 77). Booked: Ralston, Bitton, Giakoumakis.

Rangers (4-2-1-3): A McGregor 6 — J Tavernier 7, C Goldson 6, C Bassey 7, B Barisic 5 — S Davis 6 (R Jack 62, 6), J Lundstram 7 — J Aribo 6 (S Wright 62, 7) — S Arfield 5 (A Diallo 87), F Sakala 7, R Kent 6. Booked: Barisic, Kent, Diallo, Goldson.

-The Times