By Alistair Aird
Michael Beale has mentioned several times in the last week that he had three objectives that he wanted to achieve by the international break. Victory over Morton at Ibrox achieved the first one – reaching the last eight of the League Cup – but the chastening defeat in Eindhoven midweek meant the dream of Champions League group stage football was emphatically extinguished. That meant Beale led his side into the season’s first Old Firm match hoping for a victory that would take Rangers top of the league and leave the fans thinking that two out of three ain’t bad.
The manager had also talked at length about being happy with his summer signings as the transfer window closed on Friday. He has swelled the squad with the addition of nine players, but it’s fair to say that apart from Jack Butland – who has been very assured and impressive – the jury is still out when it comes to the other acquisitions. Clearly the focus has been on strengthening the squad from middle to front, but the plethora of options Beale has in those areas has some questioning how long he will keep tinkering until he establishes his preferred personnel and formation.
The latter point stimulated debate ahead of the match as to who would be selected for this vital fixture. Would he persist with Jose Ciefuentes who has a great pedigree but has flattered to deceive thus far? Would Danilo be preferred to Dessers? And what would the tactical approach be? Would it be a fluid 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, or would there be flexibility to revert to 3-5-2?
Some of those questions were answered when the team lines were published around an hour before the high noon kick-off. Although Beale had declared Borna Barisic fit to play on Friday, he missed out. Dujon Sterling filled in at left-back, with Ridvan Yilmaz on the bench. In midfield, Ryan Jack was preferred to John Lundstram and Ciefuentes, while up front, Kemar Roofe, arguably the best goalscorer at the club, was flanked by Cyriel Dessers and the rejuvenated Rabbi Matondo.
The visitors had had an uneven start to the season too. They had exited the League Cup after they got rumbled at Rugby Park, and last weekend they had laboured to a 0-0 draw at home against a St Johnstone side that had lost each game they had played before that. They were also shorn of some of their first-choice players.
All of these sub plots added to the intrigue and whetted the appetite ahead of kick-off. Nerves were still jangling – that comes with the territory when the Old Firm play each other – but you had a feeling that a home victory would prove that the foundations Michael Beale has established are firm and not flimsy.
Against the backdrop of a stunning display at the Broomloan Road end, the Ibrox cauldron bubbled as the teams emerged just before midday on to a pitch that was bathed in sunshine. And above the blue sea of Ibrox was a beautiful blue sky. With the pitch looking immaculate, the stage was set. The battle fever was most definitely on. The only question left unanswered was were the Rangers players ready? Ultimately, they weren’t even close.
Yet they started so well. Barely a minute had elapsed when the ball was in the net. Dessers motored forward and played a beautiful ball across the penalty area. Matondo slid in and scored, but celebrations were nipped in the bud when the assistant referee raised his flag. Dessers had taken possession of the ball in an offside position.
Celtic looked to take the sting out of Rangers’ early attacking intent, though, and had a spell of possession in the Rangers half. But a defence that has been rightly criticised of late stood firm, with John Souttar particularly resolute.
But most of the forward forays were towards Joe Hart’s goal. Todd Cantwell was his usual energetic self, popping passes all over the pitch and on one occasion, tracking back to help out Tavernier after the Rangers captain had been beaten by Maeda. The latter was a concern as once again the vulnerability defensively in the full back areas was clear to see, although after 16 minutes, Tavernier seemed to redeem himself with a timely intervention after Abada fizzed a cross into the box.
The Rangers forward line was very static at this stage. Too often the defenders were looking for an out ball, but neither Roofe, Dessers, or Matondo were giving them an option. This raised the ire of the home support as did the unwillingness at times to press high on what looked to be a fragile Celtic backline.
After 25 minutes, Celtic almost took the lead. Souttar slipped and Kyogo was in the clear. He bore down on goal, but Butland spread himself well and when Kyogo cut the ball back, Goldson made the block. Rangers had lost most of their early momentum, and Callum McGregor was now dictating play in the middle of the park.
But suddenly, Rangers looked to be ahead. Dessers outmuscled Lagerbielke and teed up Roofe who powered a shot beyond Hart. Once again celebrations were muted, though. Referee Don Roberston was called to the VAR screen to look at a possible foul by Dessers. He disallowed the goal. It was an outrageous call.
After 33 minutes, Dessers stretched every sinew to get on the end of a long ball from Tavernier and it was becoming clear that pressing Celtic high up the park could bear fruit. Cantwell was now playing higher up the pitch and he should have done better when he robbed Greg Taylor after 37 minutes. Alas, his cross into the box found the gloves of Hart and not a Rangers player.
There were howls of derision as half time approached as Matondo was tugged back by Alistair Johnston, but Robertson didn’t deem it a foul. The Welshman was then wasteful when Hart sclaffed a clearance to him, lifting his shot high over a gaping goal from distance.
Dessers was still bustling around, and he bulldozed his way into the area and forced a corner on the stroke of half time. Tavernier took it and picked out Roofe, but his header fell wide of target. And within seconds, Ibrox was silent, and Celtic were ahead. The Rangers central defenders were once again caught flat footed and Kyogo volleyed the ball beyond Butland.
Celtic had rarely threatened yet found themselves a goal to the good. In truth, while the decision to rule out Roofe’s goal was ridiculous, Rangers also had themselves to blame for being behind. Too often they had been passive in possession and hadn’t chipped away at a brittle Celtic rearguard. One suspected that would be the overriding message from the manager in the dressing room, press much higher and be more positive.
There were no changes at the interval, but if the pendulum didn’t swing back in Rangers’ favour, then Beale had the likes of Sima, Danilo and Lammers to call upon if required.
Rangers were ragged when the action restarted. Passes were loose and the ball was given away cheaply. Goldson then almost gifted Celtic a second when he fluffed a clearance, his blushes being spared when Butland got his fingertips to a shot from Abada. His touch also took the ball out of the reach of Maeda at the far post.
Cantwell got a sight of goal after 56 minutes but rushed his shot and fired high and wide. He then tried to play in Dessers but overhit his pass. Celtic were comfortable at this point. For Rangers, it was still very much passive rather than positive.
On the hour mark, Matondo, who had been ineffective, won a free kick in James Tavernier territory. An expectant hush was followed by moans and groans when the Rangers captain’s effort drifted harmlessly wide.
It was time for change. Off came Matondo, Roofe and Sterling, on came Lammers, Danilo and Yilmaz. The first two alterations were tactical, but Sterling, who had acquitted himself well, looked to have picked up a knock. The withdrawal of Roofe was also met with a cacophony of boos from the home support.
The natives were restless. Rangers needed something to lift them, and Goldson spurned a great opportunity when he headed a Tavernier corner over the bar after 67 minutes. Celtic then moved to the other end and Odin Holm saw his shot easily gathered by a diving Butland.
The game had started to open up, and Danilo was unfortunate when his first time shot slipped wide of the post. He then rose to meet a Cantwell corner but couldn’t find the target. Jack then broke into the box, but his shot was deflected wide for a corner. At last, Rangers seemed to be building a head of steam, but would it be too little, too late?
But then that ropiness crept back in. Raskin was short with a back pass, and Butland had to be on his toes to nick the ball away from Kyogo.
After 75 minutes, Lammers looked certain to score. He latched on to a pass from Raskin, rounded Hart, but somehow found the side netting. The sands of time were starting to run out.
Tom Lawrence and Abdallah Sima were then pitched in, taking over from Dessers and Jack. It was the last throw of the dice from Beale.
There were cries for a penalty kick after 82 minutes when Cantwell looked to be barged in the box. Robertson wasn’t interested and on review, it did appear to be shoulder to shoulder. A lovely long ball from Goldson then found Danilo who was denied by Hart, who did the same again moments later.
As the clock ticked towards 88 minutes, Lammers headed a cross from Yilmaz wide. It was looking like it would be another frustrating afternoon, another one of those occasions that you look back on with nothing but regret.
The fourth official indicated seven minutes of time would be added, but if the previous 90 were anything to go by then he could have added 77 and Rangers still wouldn’t have found the net. Yilmaz picked out Cantwell, but he snatched at a volley that was pouched by Hart. He then headed wide of target, and that was pretty much that in the additional time.
This was a meek surrender. Celtic were there for the taking and the passive approach of the manager and the players simply played into their hands. The gap at the top of the table is now four points, and going into the break, Rangers were found wanting. And those foundations? On this showing, they are flimsy at best.
The vociferous, venomous, and vitriolic reaction of the supporters at the end of the game suggests that perhaps the manager will find his coat is now on that proverbial shoogly nail. He’s yet to come out on top in what one would consider to be a ‘big’ game. A draw at home to Celtic at New Year, defeat at Parkhead and the two losses in the domestic Cups at Hampden have been compounded by the pulverising from PSV. This debacle has only served to fan the flames.
Will Beale have an opportunity to redeem himself? Time will tell, but he’s leading a ship that’s careering towards the rocks at an alarming rate of knots. He’ll need every bit of managerial nous he has gathered thus far to stop it from smashing to smithereens, but the gut feeling is that the only way forward is for a new man to take the helm.