O'Neill cautious as Celtic take firm control

 

Celtic 3 Rangers 0Scarcely had the dust settled, the singing started - in half of Glasgow at least - and the title been conceded by Rangers than Martin O'Neill was sounding a cautionary note to his Celtic squad and the club's fans. Counting chickens is not habitual for the Irishman.

Rather he took the opportunity following his team's comprehensive victory over a lightweight and lacklustre Ibrox side to send out a reality check ahead of what he says will be a difficult period for the Hoops.

"This was a terrific win and a deserved one but all we have done is give ourselves a bit of respite," he said, as he pondered what is to everyone else an unassailable 11-point lead at the top of the Scottish Premier League, not to mention completing an 18-match winning streak in the league that breaks the Lisbon Lions' previous record.

"We now have a spate of difficult matches coming up," he added. "We have Hearts and Aberdeen away, Kilmarnock at home and then we go to Dunfermline and their synthetic surface - we have dropped points to these teams before. We have to keep going."

That perfunctory speech made, O'Neill then sounded a more realistic note by accepting that, with the title all but won, he must now begin his tough search to find a replacement for his prolific striker Henrik Larsson, who has set his heart on a move away from the club when his contract expires this summer.

"Six months for a manager is a long time in the future, but I am sure the board would consider favourably any thoughts we might have of getting in a 30-goal-a-season player," he said.

"Everyone would love him to stay but I accept after talking to Henrik and his agent Rob Jansen that he wants to try something new after seven excellent years here. He'll be able to pick his club but I won't give up hope until he walks out of the door."

The Rangers manager, Alex McLeish, has more pressing concerns, however. The Ibrox squad is in disarray.

Of the struggling foursome signed by McLeish over the summer - Nuno Capucho, Emerson, Egil Ostenstad and Paolo Vanoli - none started this derby and only Capucho and Vanoli made the bench.

Meanwhile, midfielder Gavin Rae, signed just last week, lasted only 35 minutes before succumbing to a hamstring injury that had made him a pre-match doubt.

Indeed, this was the most one-sided of matches and was effectively over when Stilian Petrov headed Celtic in front after 19 minutes and was certainly so when Stanislav Varga added a second on the hour.

A magnificent late free-kick from Alan Thompson, who will surely receive a glowing report from the watching England assistant coach Tord Grip, was simply the icing on the cake.

Rangers' Georgian striker Shota Arveladze was scathing of his side's efforts.

"The time for people to look in the mirror was perhaps two months ago. Now it is too late," he said. "Things went wrong back then and the players have to ask if they've done all they could. Everyone, me included, has to look at himself."

If Rangers are indeed honest about the situation they will recognise they currently lag some way behind their rivals with no immediate prospect of catching them.

McLeish acknowledged as much, saying he now has to think long term and vowed there would be no knee-jerk reaction to this defeat in terms of new signings.

"I have to do what is right for Rangers for the future and I want to bring in players who will create a squad whereby everyone is fearing for his place," he said.

With just the Scottish Cup and League Cup left to play for, the Ibrox manager knows he is going for the second prize after the glorious treble of last season.

Celtic, on the other hand, have first prize within their grasp, whether they are prepared to admit it or not.

CELTIC: Douglas, Agathe, Balde, Varga, McNamara, Petrov, Lennon, Sutton, Thompson, Larsson, Hartson (Miller 82). Subs Not Used: Hedman, Maloney, Wallace, Crainey. Goals: Petrov 19, Varga 60, Thompson 84.

RANGERS: Klos, Ricksen, Moore, Berg, Ball, Burke, Arteta, Rae (Mols 35), Malcolm (Capucho 74), Lovenkrands, Arveladze. Subs Not Used: McGregor, Vanoli, Ross. Booked: Ball, Arteta, Moore, Lovenkrands.

Referee: S Dougal (Scotland).