By Alistair Aird
Since Rangers and Celtic first engaged in combat in the latter part of the nineteenth century, there has seldom been what you would deem a ‘meaningless’ Old Firm fixture. There’s usually something at stake, be it silverware, precious points in the race for the league title, or simply for bragging rights. Each one has carried its own significance, but this encounter had an extra edge to it.
The renaissance and recovery of Rangers under Michael Beale has stimulated the supporters. The footballing philosophy has had a much more positive vibe in the four successive wins Beale has overseen, but that brittleness that was exploited in the dying embers of Gio van Bronckhorst’s tenure has still been apparent. That’s perhaps why the crisp and cold conditions around Ibrox Stadium ahead of kick-off were laced with apprehension.
Celtic arrived seeking a thirteenth successive league victory and defending a nine-point lead at the summit of the table. If Rangers wanted to scale to that summit and supplant their Old Firm rivals, this one fitted into the ‘must win’ category.
Beale made two changes to the team that had comfortably beaten Motherwell midweek. And the alterations came in positions where the supporters probably expected them to be, in midfield and wide on the right-hand side of the attack. Glen Kamara was preferred to Ryan Jack, while Fashion Sakala took the starting berth vacated by Alex Lowry.
As the teams emerged, the white clouds had dispersed and the blue sea of Ibrox reverberated under a clear blue sky. The supporters, as always, were playing their part, signing their anthems with great lustre. The cauldron of noise was at a crescendo. It was now up to the players fulfil their end of the bargain.
Ahead of kick off the decibel levels dropped. 2 January will forever be a poignant day in the history of Rangers Football Club. In 1971, 66 of their supporters went to a game and never came home. They will always be remembered.
Rangers started on the front foot and Tillman won a free kick in the second minute after beautifully controlling an Allan McGregor clearance on his chest. It came to nothing, and after five minutes the visitors were ahead after an awful error from Alfredo Morelos. His attempted pass across the field was ill advised and under hit. It was cut out by Maeda, and he shrugged off Tavernier before stroking the ball beyond McGregor. Although the initial mistake came from the boot of Morelos, the captain was culpable for the concession of the goal too.
The home side looked to be deploying a forward-thinking 4-3-3 formation, but the early goal allowed Celtic to take the sting out the game. Rangers were loose and careless when in possession and had put little in the way of pressure on Celtic’s Canadian full back, Alistair Johnston, who had been handed a surprise debut. It was a wretched start to the game, and that had simply fuelled the anxiety that had been apparent ahead of kick off.
After 15 minutes, the stats showed Rangers holding just 30% possession, with a passing accuracy of 63%. Celtic had made 96 passes, the home side just 43. Morelos had touched the ball four times – fatally at one point – Kent just seven times, Sakala three. In contrast, Maeda had 14 touches, Forrest 11. Something had to change and change quickly, or you feared that this game would simply drift away from Rangers.
Celtic’s midfield was also stifling their Rangers counterparts. McGregor, Hatate and O’Riley were ruling the roost and dictating play. Kamara and Lundstram hadn’t stamped any kind of authority on proceedings as the clocked ticked towards the midway point of the first half.
Then the opening came. Morelos harried Hart and forced an error. The ball spun high in the air and the Colombian recovered it on the bye-line. He teed up Kent whose shot was touched on to the post by Hart. He should have scored, and after a dearth of goals in 2022, 2023 looked to have started in the same vein.
On the half hour, Kent’s darting run forced a corner, Rangers’ first of the game. The delivery from Barisic was poor, but the pressure remained on the Celtic defence. It was the first decent spell in the game for Rangers. The high press was clearly the secret of that success. It unnerved Celtic, but ball retention was still an issue, Rangers having surrendered possession 56 times compared to 50 by the visitors.
After 35 minutes, Rangers won another corner, this time on the right. On this occasion, Barisic’s delivery was much better, and Tillman almost got on the end of it when he towered above Hart.
But howls of frustration soon replaced the rapturous roars. Time without number possession was turned over in Rangers’ favour only for the ball to be given away sloppily. Michael Beale was cutting an increasingly frustrated and irritable figure at the edge of the technical area.
On 42 minutes, Tillman, who had been quiet, dinked a ball towards Morelos. It was cleared for a corner, and from Tavernier’s delivery, Morelos rose highest, but his header cleared the bar. It was another opportunity when you felt that the Rangers man had to do better.
Morelos had another sight of goal a minute shy of the interval too, but his curling shot didn’t cause Hart any issues. And El Buffalo’s half was summed up when he met another Tavernier corner in stoppage time, but for the third time in the first half, he failed to hit the target. With two aerial duels won out of eight, he was getting little change from the Celtic backline, and similarly to his team-mates, his use of the ball had been poor.
The hallmark of the first half was the lack of ball retention from Rangers. They had enjoyed 39% possession but boasted a passing accuracy of 70%. Celtic sat at 82%. Possession had also been lost on 86 occasions, compared to 77 from Celtic. If there is any fixture that you need to retain the ball and make better use of it when you have it, then it’s this one. One had to hope the stats for the second 45 minutes would paint a brighter picture.
Surprisingly, Beale resisted the temptation to make changes. The same XI that had started the match emerged after the interval, presented with the chance to redeem themselves and put more than a few wrongs right.
And boy did they do that!
Barely two minutes had elapsed when Sakala picked up the ball on the right and resisted the challenge of the £25 million-rated Juranovic before sliding the ball to Kent. He cut inside and bent a thing of beauty beyond Hart. The game was now very much ON!
Sakala seemed to have a new lease of life. He was at his effervescent best, hustling and harrying, and he had a sight of goal after 50 minutes when he was teed up by Tavernier. Unfortunately for the home side, his right foot shot flew too high. But his next involvement would be more significant.
The Zambian danced his way into the area and was felled by a sliding Starfelt. John Beaton called it, PENALTY TO RANGERS. Tavernier did the business, atoning for the part he played in the opening goal by smashing the penalty kick into the top corner with alacrity. Remarkably within less than 10 minutes of the restart, the game had been turned on its head!
In addition to the higher tempo and intensity, the ball retention issues that had plagued the first half display had also been addressed. On the hour mark, passing accuracy for Rangers had risen to 83%, with possession lost 13 times. Celtic had been rattled, and their ball retention numbers had dipped, with possession given up 18 times. Was the tide starting to turn?
The back door had to stay closed, though. Celtic introduced Abada and Mooy for Forrest and O’Riley, and the former’s cross forced Tavernier to stretch every sinew to head clear. From the couple of corners that followed, there was a scramble in the goalmouth, but Rangers held firm. They even escaped unscathed from a VAR penalty check for a possible handball against Goldson.
As much as Morelos had passed up chances to score in the first half, he had still offered more than the much-vaunted Kyogo Furuhashi. At the midway point of the second half, the Japanese, still without a goal against Rangers, had only touched the ball eight times and hadn’t had a shot at goal. Unfortunately, in the end, his threat couldn’t be nullified completely.
On 71 minutes, Beale made his first change, Ryan Jack coming on for John Lundstram. Although not at his best and clearly feeling the effects of the injury he’s admitted to carrying recently, Lundstram had still played a big part in proceedings, touching the ball 62 times and enjoying 87.2% passing accuracy. He had surrendered possession eight times but won seven of 11 ground duels. In contrast, Matt O’Riley had registered 75% passing accuracy and lost possession 13 times while winning only 50% of his eight ground duels.
Ange Postecoglu then shuffled his pack. After 77 minutes, Hatate and Maeda came off to be replaced by Jota and Giakomakis. That was a statement of attacking intent from the Australian as he looked to improve on a set of stats that showed zero shots on target in the second half.
Beale made an alteration too. Scott Wright replaced Morelos, which suggested a more central role for the final 10 minutes for Sakala. Shortly afterwards, Malik Tillman, who was denied a goal by a last-ditch block from Carter-Vickers, made way for James Sands.
This was about game management for Rangers now. Discipline and focus were key. The magnificent work of the second half could be undone in a split second, but while Rangers had to be on their guard, Celtic’s push for an equaliser could leave gaps to exploit.
But it would be the visitors who would score next. Tavernier was beaten too easily by Jota, and after some pinball in the penalty area, Kyogo broke his Old Firm duck with a firm finish. It was another goal that could be filed under the ‘preventable’ category.
Seven minutes of added time was announced. Would there be time for a dramatic late winner and a third 3-2 win of the Michael Beale era? Alas, there wasn’t.
Sakala worked an opening but slashed wastefully wide with his right foot. Sands then broke up play and was taken out by McGregor Remarkably, the yellow card flashed by John Beaton was the first of the afternoon. Ryan Jack soon followed the Celtic captain into Beaton’s book.
Proceedings petered out, and at the end of the match there was a sense of despondency. Celtic were there for the taking, but defensive deficiencies once again proved Rangers’ undoing. That being said, had you offered the home supporters a point at half time, they would have taken it given the insipid nature of the first half display.
The manager’s changes have been questioned and rightly so. I have no qualms about Jack for Lundstram given that John has been taking injections to play of late. Wright for Morelos was questionable given the joy Sakala was having roaming down the right, but the key change for me would have seen Scott Arfield being unleashed rather than James Sands. A veteran of this fixture, Arfield’s introduction may well have seen us over the line.
But let’s seek the positives. The road to recovery under Michael Beale continues. Winning the title is now out of our hands, but the five matches played under Beale have provided encouragement. Many think that major surgery is required on the squad, but as the manager alluded to in the press conference, if he gets the likes of Souttar, Lawrence, Colak and Roofe fully fit then he will have a player pool with much more depth and quality. A couple of additions in the window to provide competition for places will undoubtedly help in the restoration of some sort of equilibrium.
Today also showed that the margins between the two sides are slight. There is no reason why we cannot go on and win both domestic cup competitions and give Beale a firm foundation to build from in season 2023/24.
The quest for 56 may be faltering, but the blue shoots of recovery are evident, and I can’t wait to see them blossom in the months ahead.