Old Firm hobbling towards January break


SCOTTISH PREMIER LEAGUE/Celtic ... 1 Dunfermline ... 0: Martin O'Neill admitted yesterday that the winter break could not come soon enough - and that was all too apparent after the less-than-impressive Premier League champions grounded out a victory at Celtic Park.

They had a first-half goal by Henrik Larsson - his 29th of the season - to thank again for the points which keeps them a point behind leaders Rangers.

Celtic's gruelling domestic and European schedule looked to have finally caught up with them.

O'Neill conceded his side looked drained. "It was hard work for us and I have to admit we looked a bit tired," the Celtic boss said. "I'm obviously pleased to have won the game and Dunfermline always had a chance at 1-0.

"We have just one more game to go at Aberdeen and, after that, we will start thinking about the refreshing break. It was very difficult as it was our 10th game in 35 days or so and it's beginning to take its toll on the players so I'm delighted to have won."

The visitors started boldly enough with three at the back and five in midfield, with Scotland striker Stevie Crawford playing deep behind Craig Brewster.

However, the Glasgow side made the breakthrough with their first good chance of the game after 18 minutes.

John Hartson and then Chris Sutton flicked on Magnus Hedman's punt downfield and Larsson controlled the ball before clipping it past the advancing Derek Stillie.

"It was a brilliant goal," O'Neill said. "You still have to squeeze it in between the two of them. It was exquisite without a doubt. If Henrik stays clear of injury then he could do as well as he did two years ago. He's been terrific for us."

Larsson won the Golden Shoe award with his 53 goals in their first title-winning triumph under the Parkhead boss.

"He's got a long way to go to reach that tally and, after the Aberdeen game on Thursday, he'll be thinking about a family holiday before going away with the team," added O'Neill.

CELTIC: Hedman, Mjallby, Balde, Valgaeren, Agathe, Lambert, Petrov (Guppy 61), Sutton, Thompson, Larsson, Hartson (McNamara 75). Subs Not Used: Gould, Maloney, Crainey. Goals: Larsson 19.

DUNFERMLINE: Stillie, Skerla, Walker (Dair 77), Scott Wilson, Bullen, Nicholson, Scott Thomson, Mason (Dempsey 53), McGroarty, Crawford, Brewster (Hampshire 83). Subs Not Used: Ruitenbeek, Karnebeek. Booked: Mason, Walker, Skerla.

Referee: S Dougal (Scotland).

Kilmarnock ... 0 Rangers ... 1:

It took one moment of sublime Dutch skill and a good Danish finish for Rangers to beat Kilmarnock and stay a point clear of Celtic.

The winning goal was manufactured by Ronald de Boer and finished by Peter Lovenkrands.

Yet, it was a Scot, Barry Ferguson, who emerged as the key man on the penultimate day of the first part of the season with the winter break 90 minutes away.

The Rangers captain is carrying a pelvic injury, but his performances have been outstanding and the main reason why his side remain just ahead of their great rivals.

"Barry inspires us with his desire and will to win," said his manager Alex McLeish.

"He has been in tremendous form despite the pelvic problem and he enjoyed this one because he had Bob Malcolm alongside him as midfield cover. There's no doubt, though, that he's looking forward to the mid-winter break."

His goal aside, Lovenkrands was anonymous, as was Shota Arveladze, whose inclusion, McLeish admitted, was a gamble after injury. The Georgian forward lasted 50 minutes before being replaced by Claudio Caniggia.

Malcolm, moreover, is usually an out-and-out central defender.

So it was a patched-up Rangers team minus the likes of Arthur Numan, Mikel Arteta, Fernando Ricksen and Neil McCann; they are limping towards the mid-season shutdown.

Yet, that was enough against Kilmarnock, who threw caution to the wind the longer the game went on and in so doing should have conceded more as gaps appeared at the back.

After 24 minutes of not a lot happening, De Boer picked out Lovenkrands with a glorious 40-yard crossfield pass and the Dane completed the job, although Gordon Marshall will be upset the shot beat him at his near post.

From then on, there was little between the teams - aside from the ubiquitous Ferguson.

KILMARNOCK: Marshall, Canero, Innes, Shields, Dillon, Fowler, Fulton, Mahood, Mitchell (Dargo 45), McSwegan (Boyd 66), McLaren. Subs Not Used: Meldrum, Dindeleux, Hay. Booked: Innes, McLaren.

RANGERS: Klos, Moore, Amoruso, Malcolm, Ross, Ferguson, de Boer, Muscat, Arveladze (Caniggia 51), Mols, Lovenkrands. Subs Not Used: McGregor, Nerlinger, Latapy, McLean. Booked: Moore. Goals: Lovenkrands 24.

Referee: D McDonald (Scotland).