Sunday’s seventh and final Old Firm encounter of the season suffered the burden of more off-field controversy than the norm, no thanks to the work of one (or a handful of) lunatic. But keeping strictly to football matters, this also served to be Walter Smith’s final game in charge – at Ibrox no less. With Celtic’s game in hand, Rangers needed a win to wrestle the destiny of the SPL title back into their own hands. But for the departing manager there would be no fairytale ending for what has been an illustrious career at Ibrox.
Two major surprises in Neil Lennon’s team selection – the first was the omission of Kris Commons whose had a storming impact since arriving in January. However Commons is most effective in a free-ish role on the left, and with the season hanging in the balance at Ibrox, Lennon opted for the more defensively sound Joe Ledley on that side. As a result, Ki Sung-Yeung came into the centre – rather astonishingly making for a midfield made up of 4 central midfielders.
The second big decision saw Anthony Stokes drop out in favour of Georgios Samaras. The former did not impress in his one starting appearance against Rangers this season and the latter conversely has been exceptional. Also weighing on Lennon’s mind would’ve been the lack of height up front that the Stokes/Hooper combination concedes.
On paper this was the precise starting ten outfield players that defeated Celtic at Hampden in the CIS Cup Final but the system had changed. The 4-4-1-1 utilised in that win with Steven Naismith behind Nikica Jelavic was revealed to be flawed. Kyle Lafferty was not suited to playing wide and Naismith was too often asked to compete in the air. Smith changed things in that game to a more direct 4-4-2 style, playing to his teams own strengths and the perceived weakness of Celtic’s back four. Basically defend deep and narrow with two banks of four, while sweeping long, high passes to Jelavic and Lafferty.
Dealing with such direct play has long been the achilles heel of the Celtic defence, and Jelavic in particular thrives on the personal duals with his marker. In such taut, pressured environments with so much at stake, this heaps further pressure on the defence who cannot afford a mistake. It’s a physical, “route one” but ultimately hopeful approach pinning hope on the individual skill and linkup of the two strikers.
Gregg Wylde was perhaps a surprise inclusion, but his pace and crossing ability fits in well with this tactical style. First and foremost he has the pace and youthful energy to keep check of Mark Wilson, but secondly his left-foot delivery is useful ammunition for the two targetmen. But Smith didn’t really have any other option on that side – El Hadji Diouf for all his past ability is arguably more trouble than he’s worth (and certainly not reliable defensively) and John Fleck has found himself on the fringe of the squad.
Fraught and edgy
It was an Old Firm that challenged Walter Smith’s sensibilities as a cautious, safety first manager: it was a “must-win” game for the home side while Celtic would be content with a draw. With regards to this, neither side wanted to concede and so play mainly revolved around Celtic trying to keep possession, aided by four good “possession” players in midfield while Rangers desperately bombarded Mulgrew and Majstorovic with long-balls.
It also wouldn’t be an Old Firm without a decent penalty shout going against Celtic, and while Joe Ledley smashed into Steven Whittaker in the Rangers box on the 18th minute, it was perhaps the Celtic midfielder doing the smashing. Ledley and Brown’s instinctive forays into the centre caused Ranger’s numerous problems, with the Celtic Captain going close with a left-footed drive. Their inward movement seemed to confuse the Rangers full-backs – to follow or allow space? As Gary Hooper and Georgios Samaras were more than happy to exploit any would-be gaps.
But equally, and particularly in Brown’s case this gravitation to the centre allowed Gregg Wylde more room than he should’ve been allowed, and often Wilson was finding himself out numbered two to one. It was ranged crossing from this side that allowed two of Rangers’ better chances – first Jelavic chesting down to Edu, who should’ve done better and then Naismith blasting a narrow angled volley well wide.
The danger from this left-hand side continued, and the most worrying for Lennon would’ve been Lafferty’s free header from a Wylde cross – with Mulgrew caught ball-watching.
Push for a winner
For all the confusion in the Celtic defence that these long-balls caused, Celtic were reasonably comfortable in open play. At any given time one of Hooper or Samaras would be dropping between the lines, and this helped bring others into play from deep positions. With Brown and Kayal’s trademark hustling coupled with Ki’s confident ball-retention, Celtic were slowly turning the screw and Kris Commons’ introduction added fresh impetus to the attack. Perhaps the point where the result looked to be tipping in Celtic’s favour, was Majstorovic’s goal-bound header tipped acrobatically wide by McGregor.
The change that should’ve settled the game, was Anthony Stokes for Hooper with fifteen minutes to go. The tricky Irishman had a lot to prove, given his reaction to not featuring in the CIS Cup final, and his close control and clever movement confounded the Rangers defence. Making a fool out of Bougherra at the touch-line, Stokes darted into the box and drew a foul from Steven Davis. Replays may suggest a borderline call, but watching again in “real” time approves the ref’s decision.
Inevitably, Samaras missed the penalty – a pretty hefty blotch on a good all-round performance. But with the score finishing level, the race for the SPL remains in Celtic’s hands. A determined, organised performance from Celtic that just lacked that little bit of luck in front of goal; along with resolute defending in the face of a menacing Rangers attack.
The result could represent a microcosm of the season – Walter Smith’s route one, almost desperate approach towards a grand last hurrah suppressed by a superior Celtic side.