Celtic derby delight perfect response to early-season headaches

Celtic's derby victory over Rangers on Sunday was the perfect response to a trying period for Brendan Rodgers' champions.
Matt Gault  |  3rd September 2018

This was not an Old Firm to live long in the memory. Despite paling in comparison to the cantankerous, blood-and-thunder battles of previous years, it still felt significant in many ways.

Olivier Ntcham’s second-half strike proved enough for Celtic as Brendan Rodgers’ men moved into second in the Scottish Premiership table after condemning Steven Gerrard to his first defeat in senior management.

Following Sunday’s clash, our friends at Football Whispers look at what impact, if any, the result has on the fierce Old Firm rivalry.

The scoreline was tight but much of the match was not, Celtic dominating large portions of the game as Rangers tried to absorb pressure and hit the Hoops on the counter.

Gerrard may have been apoplectic about the referee failing to spot what he saw as a ‘blatant foul’ on Ryan Jack in the build-up to Celtic’s winner, but a draw would have not been a justifiable outcome following the home side’s superiority and attacking intent at Parkhead.

As well as the goal, Celtic struck the Rangers crossbar three times, while the away side were indebted to goalkeeper Allan McGregor, whose string of impressive saves spared another Old Firm hammering.

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Rangers have now failed to score in their last five trips to Parkhead but Gerrard will not lose sleep over history: he has more immediate concerns. Defeat on Sunday left the Gers on five points from four games, their worst start to a league campaign for 29  years.

These are early days, of course, and Gerrard, having signed 15 players over the summer, requires more time in which to fashion a cast-iron starting XI. But there can be no delusions over the extent of the task facing the 38-year-old having taken just two points from a possible nine on the road.

Add to that an increasingly intense fixture schedule with trips to Russia, Austria and Spain in the Europa League, we will have a clearer sense of where Rangers stand closer to Christmas.

As for Celtic, it was a much-needed win after a turbulent opening to the campaign. Defeat to Hearts in their second game was followed by crashing out of the Champions League to AEK Athens, a disastrous three days which attracted discontent from the fans and heightened friction between Rodgers and the board following an underwhelming summer transfer window.

The situation was not helped by two key first-team members agitating for moves away. Dedryck Boyata remains a Celtic player but Moussa Dembele’s departure on deadline day to Lyon was a crushing blow given the Frenchman’s output – 51 goals in 94 appearances.

Most importantly, Celtic got the job done. While Rangers grew into the game after the interval, the stats were largely in the champions’ favour, with 57 per cent possession and 16 shots to Rangers’ six.

Regardless of Gerrard’s feelings on the collision between Tom Rogic and Jack, Celtic’s winner – arriving just after the hour – was beautifully crafted. A swift and ruthless counter-attack in which Rogic, Odsonne Edouard and James Forrest combined to tee up Ntcham, whose finish, coming at the end of a 90-yard dash, was unerring.

That Rangers are already showing signs of fatigue is a measure of how critical Gerrard’s game-by-game management will be. Eight of the 11 who started Thursday’s 1-1 draw with FC Ufa in Russia featured from the outset against Celtic.

With 3,000 air miles in the legs, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Ovie Ejaria – whose goal in Russia ultimately secured Europa League qualification – looked tired, especially given that Rangers played a quarter of that game with nine men.

But even with that, Gerrard will not tolerate how the on-loan Liverpool midfielder let Ntcham run off his left shoulder during Celtic’s counter. It was at once a sign of the 20-year-old’s inexperience and a reminder of the work Gerrard has ahead of him.

Thankfully for Gerrard, there is no finality to a derby defeat on the second day of September. He can draw some encouragement from the fact that Rangers showed flickers of a fightback in the second half but will be under no illusion that the gulf between the two most decorated clubs in Scottish football remains considerable.

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