Celtic v Rangers: just like old times, except on the pitch
Whether Old Firm or new Glasgow derby, the competitive edge was missing
Celtic players celebrate Leigh Griffiths’s goal in front of Rangers fans during their Scottish League Cup semi-final at Hampden Park stadium. Photograph: Russell Cheyne
It was all there again: the noise, the bile, the electricity, the songs, the colours, the police, the flags, the sell-out, the stadium divide, the city divide and the mutual raging sense of persecution. Yes, the whole Glasgow shouting match was on display at Hampden Park. But where it matters most, on the pitch, the reunion of Celtic ad Rangers, after almost three years, revealed afresh the ragged state of domestic Scottish football.
Whether you saw this as the 400th meeting of the Old Firm, or the first of a new post-Rangers liquidation era, what was on offer compared badly with a past so present in this fixture.
On a ploughed field of a pitch, Rangers were close to embarrassing in the first half. They finished it 2-0 down but it could have been double that. Small, quiet and timid, Rangers’ players were everything their fanbase was not.
When Celtic fans taunted their rivals with “You’re not Rangers any more”, the words hit home.
Leigh Griffiths gave Celtic a 10th-minute lead and Kris Commons scored the second on the half hour. At that stage, Celtic were dominant. They play in a different league to their old rivals and it was showing.
But not in the second half. The second 45 minutes passed without Celtic having a shot on target. Rangers, admittedly, improved from their anaemic opening but Celtic facilitated that.
Whereas Ronny Deila’s side had been front-foot aggressive in the first half, Celtic were now on the back foot, seemingly content to contain a team from a lower division who were two goals down. Celtic were in the middle of the ring practising rope-a-dope. The competitive edge, so vital when the Old Firm was more than a mere spectacle, was missing.
Rangers did not produce one shot on target in the entire 90 minutes and, ultimately, for all the other stuff, the core ingredient – the football – was hollow.
Deila described the occasion as “unbelievable”. The Norwegian manager had been at Celtic 2 Barcelona 1 just over two years ago and said this atmosphere was “at the same level”.
Maybe so, but Victor Wanyama and Tony Watt – Celtic’s scorers that night – have been sold along with a clutch of others and a consequence is a reduced squad playing to reduced expectations. It is something Rangers know all about.
Set the toneScott Brown
Brown set about imposing himself with a physicality that jolted Rangers. Were the players around him of higher calibre, Brown would have been deserving of a Souness comparison.
Celtic’s captain seemed to take particular pleasure from storming through Rangers’ sometimes chippy playmaker Ian Black. Black spent a lot of this game picking himself up from Brown challenges.
This riled the Rangers masses. It does not take much. They were in full voice from early on, roaring through the “party tunes” songbook. The quaint notion that the Old Firm absence might tame supporter opinion had been disproved by then.
Anyone who saw this Glasgow renewal as a purely sporting occasion should have walked around Hampden.
The closest you got to those modern 50/50 scarves was at a green stall selling Celtic paraphernalia.
Scarves there had “The Celts v Sevco” on them, stretched out beneath billowing tricolours.
At the other end of the road, the colours were blue and orange and the scarves said: “We Are The People”.
At kick-off Celtic fans unfurled a banner bearing the words: “At the going down of the Hun, we will remember them.” It was more creative than most of what was placed in front of them.
Celtic could argue that they killed off the match as a contest with their goals. Rangers’ caretaker manager Kenny McDowall said that the blue gameplan was “to keep it tight” but Celtic were ahead with their first serious attack. Stefan Johansen’s drilled cross was met by Griffiths who headed squarely past Steve Simonsen.
“That threw a spanner in the works,” added McDowall.
Twenty minutes of comfortable Celtic pressure later, Brown barged through Nicky Law on the edge of the Rangers area. The ball ran to Commons who swung that talented left foot and sent the ball into the top corner. Simonsen should have saved it. The Rangers collective – if the term is appropriate at riven Ibrox – deserved to be concerned.
Celtic fans, meanwhile, were doing “the Poznan”.
Virgil Van Dijk should have made it 3-0 on 39 minutes from an Anthony Stokes corner and Simonsen then redeemed himself with a save from Griffiths just before half-time. The half ended with Van Dijk dismissively holding off Law in a tackle, a moment that summed up Celtic’s superiority.
But the second half did not unfold in the same way and the contest petered out. Rarely has that been said before.
But Glasgow and the global voyeurs have had their Old Firm fix. Given Rangers’ predicament it could be a while before the next one, though after this, a period of silence might be no bad thing.