One hundred and fifty six days after David Gray’s headed winner handed Hibernian the Scottish Cup, breaking one of football’s great curses, Rangers were felled once again from the same side of the pitch into the same side of the goal. A curse may now belong to them. Albeit, one which revolves round specific square footage of the Hampden pitch.
It appeared, despite Celtic’s dominance, the second Betfred League Cup semi-final would be heading to extra-time, thanks to a mixture of Conrad Logan-esque heroics from Matt Gilks – slightly more svelte than Logan but not by much – and Celtic’s profligacy.
A score line of 1-0 suggests the difference between the two sides was minimal compared to the 5-1 reversal but for Rangers fans, in a semi-final against their bitterest rivals, all defeats are the same: hard to take, disappointing, bordering on unacceptable among some of the more demanding followers. For Mark Warburton, however, it allowed him to opine to RangersTV that “we’ve lost a game of football but I hope very much that this so-called gap is a lot narrower than people think.” Nope, Mark. It is as big as people think.
Celtic were completely dominant throughout a pulsating encounter. Even if the first half lacked any real quality and was a little too helter-skelter it at least had something the soporific Red Monday clash between Liverpool and Manchester United lacked: tempo.
Warburton quietened a few critics by displaying a more pragmatic approach to the game, exhibiting that he is not completely wedded to his dogma. James Tavernier was moved forward with Lee Hodson coming in at right-back, a move which reinforced Rangers’ right-side and stifled the bombarding runs of Kieran Tierney and the space in which Scott Sinclair had to gain momentum to jink his way into dangerous positions.
Only once did Celtic truly penetrate down that side when Rangers were caught upfield. It should have been twice but following on from Wednesday’s lame performance against Borussia Moenchengladbach, Nir Bitton fluffed what should have been a simple pass, dissecting the Rangers backline.
Since September, Rangers have played in 7 games, conceding 8 goals. 6 of these goals have been conceded against Celtic.
— Dougie Wright (@dougie_analysis) October 24, 2016
Rangers’ backline has been a point of consternation. Improvements are being made, ever so slightly. At Hampden Rangers were more compact and defended deeper, helped by diligent tracking back from Tavernier and the willing Barrie McKay.
Celtic had little joy down the wings and in general in the first 45 minutes. Their set plays were poor against a team who have struggled dealing with simple corners and crosses. It was bamboozling to see Celtic play it short.
Where they did find a little bit of freedom was in the match up between Andrew Halliday and Tom Rogic. Twice in the first half Rogic positioned his body perfectly to take the ball on the turn, while simultaneously turning away from Halliday. For all his passion and work-rate, what is Halliday’s best position? In big games he is not an effective holder as seen by the way he was dominated by Rogic. He is best in that role when Rangers are on the front foot and dominate possession. It was always a worry for Rangers, the makeup of their midfield against Celtic with no natural enforcer or sitter. Josh Windass was a peripheral figure, while Jason Holt took up some naturally intelligent positions, especially in wider areas but is still not quite at the level to really effect games of this stature and magnitude.
Space was there for Celtic to exploit but often in the first half they were both crowded out by their own players getting in the road or by competent, tight defending. When they did have an opening Gilks made a good block from Sinclair and Rogic should have did better with his attempt and passing it into the bottom corner.
Rangers’ defending was a major improvement from the meeting at Celtic Park but they lacked anything in attack. It wasn’t until after the 50th minute for their first attempt. Not their first ‘real’ attempt or first attempt on target. Their first attempt. Holt did his best to bridge the gap between midfield and attack, Tavernier concentrated on his defensive responsibility which he did to a high standard and McKay continued to frustrate with another ineffective performance. Kenny Miller was fighting a losing battle against two of the best centre backs in the league.
As an aside. McKay is clearly a talented player but his inclusion with Scotland baffles. There are players who have proven themselves for more than one season in the Scottish top flight, not much older than McKay, who have had little look in.
The pressure continued to build in the second half for Celtic. At times it was constant. The arrival of Stuart Armstrong took it up a gear. The former Inverness Caledonian Thistle youngster has caught the eye of Brendan Rodgers, ahead of the lost boys Gary Mackay-Steven and Ryan Christie. Armstrong has the intelligence, technical ability and power which suits the way Rodgers wants to play, even if he is seen as an impact player at this current time.
He came on to play alongside Scott Brown and was at his driving best from deep. It is a position that this writer believes will eventually be his best. As an ‘8’ in a three man midfield or an ‘8’ in a deeper two with his team mate more defensive minded to give him that base to influence the game going forward. His presence kept Rangers on the back foot.
He was thwarted by Gilks after a direct run, not long after Sinclair passed up another fine opportunity having been played in by Rogic. Speaking of Rogic, there is something about him that makes this writer think he should perhaps do more. Yes, he is currently contributing a lot but it would be good to see him open up a bit more and drive forward with those animated spider legs, albeit a hell of a lot less scarier. Become a bit more selfish in the final third.
Warburton lamented his side’s use of the ball in the second half, bemoaning their tendency to use the long ball. However, it was understandable considering the pressure they were under, added to the risks taken and gotten away with in the first half. Only twice did they get into good areas in the second half, Wallace and Tavernier’s centres escaping Joe Garner and Holt hitting a shot against Jozo Simunovic respectively.
Much to the disbelief of the green and white hordes, the match was heading to extra-time, yet there was another feather to be added to Rodgers’s cap. He took the plunge and went two up front and his front men combined for the winner. As mentioned Rangers defended better, with Rob Kiernan putting the shackles on Moussa Dembele. But they are still at the level of performance and let’s be honest quality, that a moment of shoddiness is only around the corner. A simple long ball was bizarrely dealt with by Wallace. Bizarre in that he ended up with his back to the long ball, flailing a leg at the ball. The gap that developed between the two centre backs was far too wide, allowing Dembele to run and get in front of a plodding Kiernan, who had a three-yard head start, and expertly meet Leigh Griffiths’s centre.
Not sure what is more wonderful: Moussa Dembélé’s sumptuous strike or the commentary that comes with it here. pic.twitter.com/TeZy1V6znP — Get French Football (@GFFN) October 23, 2016
It was the very least Celtic had deserved. They could have pointed to the Erik Sviatchenko goal which was harshly ruled out for . . . holding/pushing/pulling? Clint Hill was standing off the Celtic centre back and then tried to rectify it, before falling easily to the ground. Craig Thomson did, however, call the McKay dive and yellow card correctly.
The chances, individual and team performances were all in Celtic’s favour. Brown had an old-school performance. It was one that suggested he had something to prove after his last outing at Hampden. He thundered about, showing little respect for his opponents, as witnessed by his crude challenge on Halliday which could easily have been a red card. You knew the old Brown was back when he chased back, regained possession brilliantly then tried to pass to a teammate a couple of yards away. The pass ended up out the pitch.
At the back Simunovic had an exemplary performance. Dominant, covered well and produced a fabulous block which meant Craig Gordon had so little to do that Efe Ambrose and Jay Beattie could have taken a half about.
The gulf in class is still there. Rangers, like any other team in Scotland, had to rely on luck, wastefulness in front of goal from Celtic and a very good goalkeeping performance to the keep the score down. It is a scenario that will have to be played out throughout the season for teams to avoid a hiding and if they are to take points of the champions-elect.
Rangers were in the unenviable position, due to their history, of having to make a leap on being promoted, while most promoted teams are able build into their season back in the top-flight. Walk first, then jog, then run. However, the size of the club and its budgets does not seem to allow for that as they attempt to bridge the gap.
That is why recruitment was essential. Rangers will have hoped that Celtic’s transfer strategy was similar to recent years, erratic and slapdash. Yet, it has been almost flawless. The incoming players, along with Rodgers, have raised the quality of the team, the level of performance and of individual players.
Rangers had to get their recruitment spot on. It has been anything but. Wages wasted on Joey Barton, Niko Kranjcar is a long-term casualty just when he was settling into his side but perhaps most galling of all: £1.8million on Joe Garner plus £12,000-a-week. Read that again and again. It becomes more baffling each time. These were the players that were supposed to help make sure that the gap was ‘narrower than people think’. Instead Barton is nowhere to be seen and Garner (£1.8million plus a wage of £12,000) was a substitute and has had little if no effect since his arrival.
@celticrumours serious. Two 900k payments. And £12k a week.
— Ewan Murray (@mrewanmurray) October 23, 2016
While Celtic make strides towards the treble which has proved so elusive since Rangers’ exit from the top flight, Warburton is trying to challenge with effectively the same team which won the Championship. The gulf is prominent.
My word, Dundee are in big trouble. What an absolute gang. Their performance was incredibly inept as they fell to St Johnstone. You look at the players at Paul Hartley’s disposal and, despite his views, think ‘what even is there in that team to make you optimistic?’
When the midfielders have the ball they must look up and see relegation in front of them and relegation to the side of them. Yordi Teijsse is static, while Faissal El Bakhtaoui has done his best work away from the box. Apparently Teijsse scored the majority of his goals in the Netherlands for Quick Boys with his head. That’s all well and good but I imagine defenders are not as good in the air as the likes of Steven Anderson.
There is a lack of quality, pace and creativity throughout the Dundee side. They are easily bullied and worryingly dominated in central areas where they should have a numerical advantage. St Johnstone played with a freedom and insouciance because Dundee allowed them.
Hartley failed to lead his side into the top six with both Greg Stewart and Kane Hemmings. Partly down to so many draws. What Dundee would do for a couple of draws now.
One final point on the Celtic-Rangers game. Chris Sutton and Terry Butcher suggest that East Anglia is a patter vacuum. Butcher with a commentary performance in keeping with his last two managerial stints.
Written by Joel Sked