It is easy to detect that Celtic’s supporters are not particularly interested in the mitigating circumstances attached to the their team’s listless showing against Rangers.
Stakes are high in Glasgow this season as Neil Lennon’s team pursue a record-breaking 10th title in succession. It would be an exaggeration to suggest Lennon is feeling heat but rumblings of discontent have been apparent since a painful Champions League exit to Ferencvaros. After years of domestic dominance, perhaps it is natural that Celtic’s following find bumps in the road difficult to handle.
Steven Gerrard, who guided Rangers to a deserved victory at Celtic Park last December, repeated the trick in even more comprehensive fashion. These are very early days but, in a campaign where disruption looks inevitable, Rangers’ four-point Premiership lead feels significant. Celtic’s game in hand offers them only minimal consolation.
“Can they respond? Absolutely,” said Lennon of his players. “They’ve done it before. But they can’t live on the past. This is the present and we’ve got a title race on our hands and we have to roll our sleeves up and do better.”
Covid-related matters had denied Lennon the services of Ryan Christie and Odsonne Édouard. James Forrest is a long-term injury absentee. Christopher Jullien’s back problem meant Stephen Welsh was handed a second start in defence. Lennon emerged for post-match media duties to cite another “disgusting” problem, that of his starting XI being leaked online the night before the game. This is the second time in two years the Northern Irishman has been forced to highlight this issue.
Such disruption cannot come without consequence but Celtic must play with more intent than Rangers had to deal with. Allan McGregor, the visiting goalkeeper, had only a late break from Leigh Griffiths as a cause for minor concern during 93 minutes. Gerrard’s midfield was the epitome of sharpness, with Glen Kamara the pick of that trio. Celtic looked one-paced by comparison.
Gerrard bridled at the notion Rangers had encountered Celtic at an ideal time. “We haven’t played a Celtic team with issues, we have beaten a strong Celtic team,” said the Rangers manager. “There will be no one getting carried away. We need to remain humble and remember what has gone on over the last two years. There is still an awful lot of work to do.” Gerrard is correct to reference recent history. Despite his useful record against Celtic, Rangers are yet to return a single trophy under the former Liverpool captain.
Rangers seized the initiative in the ninth minute. James Tavernier, as is his forte, swung in a menacing free-kick, which Connor Goldson met unchallenged. There was still time for Celtic to rescue the situation but Vasilis Barkas, the goalkeeper, delivered a meek attempt at a save.
Mohamed Elyounoussi wasted Celtic’s only serious chance in reply, the on-loan Southampton winger lacking composure when he tried to lob McGregor. The episode rather summed up the hosts’ day. An empty stadium at least spared Celtic what would have been epic anger from the stands.
Goldson’s second of the afternoon arrived after Shane Duffy had blocked his first shot from a Scott Arfield cross. The introductions of Tom Rogic, Albian Ajeti and Griffiths – none of whom looked particularly fit – into the Celtic attack could not change the dynamic of a stress-free Rangers defensive performance. Only a fine block from Kristoffer Ajer prevented Ryan Kent, who tormented Celtic throughout, from adding a third.
“There is no message to Celtic,” Gerrard insisted. “I think it is for us. We have come here again, we have performed well, we have done the job that the players were asked to do. But it is not about sending a message. It is still very early, there is a lot of football to be played. We need to remain calm and professional.” The blue half of Glasgow, who have glory in their sights once more, will take some convincing about this stoical approach.