Celtic are through to the quarter finals of the Scottish Cup after a tumultuous win over Old Firm rivals Rangers at Parkhead. But the occasion was defined not by the football on show, but personal conflict, petty arguments and most importantly cards.
While the stat of a single off-target Rangers attempts on goal (compared to Celtic’s 15, 4 on target) sums up the utter dominance enjoyed by Celtic, the urgency and nerves remained right up to the final whistle, as only a goal seperated the sides.
Celtic’s starting lineup was as many expected with Old Firm success story Georgios Samaras coming in for Anthony Stokes, a player seen by Lennon perhaps as a bit of a luxury in such encounters. Baram Kayal returned to midfield to replace the suspended Joe Ledley, and similarly Lukasz Zaluska came in for Frazer Forster, who of course was red carded last time round.
While the late withdrawal of Kyle Lafferty and in particular Nikica Jelavic may have forced Walter Smith’s hand to a degree, he opted for the formation used so far exclusively in European competition – a cautious 5-4-1. With Vladimir Weiss already ruled out, the inexperienced John Fleck took position on the left of a narrow 4 man midfield. Surely a statement of intent if anything, of aiming for at least a tight game.
The problem for Rangers using this system as discovered in Europe, is that possession is largely given up in favour of rigid shape and solidity. The past 6 European encounters have averaged possession of only 40% for Rangers and the most promising way of sneaking goals is via either set-pieces or counter-attacks. Pre-January Kenny Miller was absolutely essential, his pace and stamina being well suited to a counter-attacking style – but none of Jelavic, Lafferty or especially the languid El Hadji Diouf are that comfortable in this selfless, patient role. In fact after only 10 minutes the possession statistic leaned a staggering 78% in Celtic’s favour.
With Celtic’s Scott Brown tucking in to make essentially a three man centre, again as found in previous Old Firm encounters the Rangers 2 man centre was simply overrun. Ki Sung-Yeung sat deepest with Kayal and Brown fighting for possession which gave the Korean relative space and freedom to sweep the football effectively out to the flanks.
With Rangers’ wide players getting sucked ever closer in towards the central midfield battle, Emilio Izaguirre in particular was finding immense room to attack the deep set Richard Foster at right-back. In fact the Honduran essentially played like an out and out winger, at least as high up the pitch as Kris Commons who had a free-ish role cutting inside. And Izaguirre had the beating of Foster time and time again, with the Rangers defender cruelly exposed and devoid of support.
Crucially, the Celtic left-back was central to the two main incidents that decided the game. In the first half already on a card, Steven Whittaker needlessly, stupidly and dangerously clattered high into Izaguirre and Calum Murray had no choice but to produce a second yellow. In an overran midfield, a costly error.
Walter Smith adjusted to the card by swapping the ineffectual Fleck for Kyle Hutton at half-time. But Smith adamantly stood by the 5 man defence, even with the further midfield disadvantage. In hindsight perhaps a time in cup competition to throw caution to the wind. But for Smith’s reason, one only needs to look at Messrs Samaras and Hooper in the two preceding Old Firm encounters, both managing to destroy the creaking David Weir for pace to score game-breaking goals. The relative speed of Bougherra and Bartley flanking Weir, was absolutely crucial and the outnumbering strategy seemed to snuff Gary Hooper and Samaras right out of the game.
Having contributed to Whittaker’s removal, Izaguirre tormented the Rangers defence now with even more space to exploit – Steven Davis simply could not cover the ground in the wide areas and again Foster was exposed one on one. Izaguirre’s delicious cross found the other rampaging Celtic full-back on the other side, Mark Wilson, who too was enjoying not only space down the side of Rangers’ midfield, but minimal defensive responsibility. Wilson’s double whammy of shots knocked out Sasa Papac in the first instance who made a superb face block on the line (unfortunately then subbed for rookie Gregg Wylde) but the second effort squiggled it’s way over MacGregor and Bougherra, and into the net.
Smith’s lack of depth
Celtic continued to boss possession and simultaneously expose the dearth of quality first team players (and options) at Rangers F.C. While the squad limitations forced Smith into playing the only formation that can maintain David Weir at this level, more antagonising was the substitute bench consisting of entirely untested individuals – Wylde and Hutton barely have 10 first team appearances between them, leaving David Healy (who struggled at Doncaster Rovers) and Salim Kerkar (zero first team appearances) as the only other options from the bench. Contrast with Celtic’s World Cup star Efrain Juarez, SPL top scorer Anthony Stokes and up and coming talents James Forrest and Thomas Rogne, who’ve both enjoyed fine starts to the SPL. A desperate situation for Rangers.
Game settles tentatively
While Celtic were relatively content to hoard possession and pick opportunities, Rangers were quite happy to not be more than a goal down under the circumstances. Therefore the “better” chances, term used loosely, were materialising from deep set-pieces. Ki was close with numerous decent deliveries into the box and some nice long range tries. Meanwhile Rangers’ Steven Davis in as deep an area as his own half was looping hopeful “hail mary” dead-balls into Bartley and Bougherra, who advanced for such occasions.
This was far from incisive from both sides, but Celtic quietly content. Even into the last 5-10 minutes when Smith finally went all out and stuck Bartley up front (with Edu supporting in a truly dishevelled formation) Rangers didn’t really look like grabbing anything, while Celtic perhaps allowed the opposition a little too much leeway for comfort. But the result was never really in doubt.
The good, the bad and the ugly.
With Celtic’s dominance and Rangers grim reality out of the way, now for the ugly. The unsavoury shenanigans depressingly overshadowed the contest and therefore the match report wouldn’t be complete without a brief summary.
Needless to say, El Hadji Diouf got stupidly involved with manager Neil Lennon during the initial Whittaker red-card, a very silly moment. Rangers also managed to pick up a shocking 9 yellow cards (another of which removed Bougherra from proceedings for a reckless and pitiful lunge). The Rangers players at this point mobbed the ref, manhandling him (with which further incriminations must surely apply).
There was an obligatory half-time tunnel scuffle involving Scott Brown and Diouf, and the (apparently) former African Player of the Year received a straight rec card post match, for reasons unclear. Finally Lennon and McCoist squared up to each other rather ludicrously at the end of the game, with Lennon perhaps handing out retribution for something uttered by McCoist during the pre-match hand-shake.
A busy night for Calum Murray (and perhaps to be a busier night for the tabloids) who to his credit did handle things well, but ultimately a bit of a shame that the off-field hijinks manage to overshadow what was a consumate performance from Celtic. Caley Thistle await in the Quarter Finals in Inverness.