For the second time this month, Celtic found themselves thoroughly outplayed in an Old Firm derby. Where luck shined their way in the League Cup final, this time Rangers made them pay.
Goals from Ryan Kent and Nikola Katic proved enough for the visitors to earn a crucial three points. As in that final, Celtic were again awarded a goal that shouldn’t have stood as Callum McGregor’s shot deflected in off Odsonne Edouard’s hand. Ryan Christie’s missed penalty at 0-0 was a game-changer, but the fact their biggest goal threat all game was centre back Christopher Jullien says it all about Celtic’s toothless performance.
Not even Alfredo Morelos injury-time red card for diving provided any consolation for Hoops fans. The title race is now precariously balanced. Celtic still hold a narrow two-point lead at the top of the table, but Rangers have played a game less. Steven Gerrard’s first league title just became a lot closer while his counterpart Neil Lennon has much to ponder as the Scottish Premiership adjourns for its winter break.
Ntcham omission proves costly
Celtic’s starting line-up was as expected with one omission which became more glaring as the game progressed. Olivier Ntcham had started the last six games in all competitions. Indeed, the last fixture he played no part in was the cup final. Lennon had seemingly learned his lesson from that day when Celtic were dominated in the middle of the pitch. Playing much deeper than Christie does as a number 10, he seemed the obvious choice to even the midfield battle.
Instead, the hosts reverted to the system that very fortuitously earned them the first trophy of the season. Mikey Johnston came back into the side playing wide left. James Forrest was restored to the right-wing with Christie pushed up in support of Edouard. All that created, however, was a disconnect between the holding midfielders, Scott Brown and Callum McGregor, and the front four. Steven Davis made a game-high 18 ball recoveries as Rangers constantly snuffed out Celtic’s attempted passes through the lines.
Davis – 18
Katic – 11
Goldson – 9
Jullien – 17
Ajer – 14
Brown – 10 https://t.co/850fZaRGSk
— Stefan Bienkowski (@SBienkowski) December 30, 2019
When Ntcham did enter the fray in the second half it unsurprisingly coincided with Celtic enjoying more possession. Perhaps that was because the Gers, already with a 2-1 lead, were content to move into protection mode. Ntcham’s introduction had proven too little too late as the trio of Davis, Ryan Jack and Glen Kamara stamped their authority on proceedings.
Johnston and Forrest both had poor games on the wings. Too often Forrest was floating inside leaving Jeremie Frimpong isolated and low on options when Celtic attacked down that side. Nevertheless, withdrawing both when a goal down at home to your biggest rivals seemed strange. Nir Bitton came on with Ntcham as Lennon switched to a back three. Frimpong and Boli Bolingoli moved up to wing back to provide the width.
Regardless of how high they played, though, it meant Celtic were playing with five defenders when chasing the game. Consequently, they suffered from a desperate lack of creativity in the final 20 minutes. Allan McGregor wasn’t tested, although Davis did have to clear Jullien’s goalbound header from the line. Taking off the ineffective Bolingoli and moving Johnston or Forrest to wing-back may not have changed the result, but at least would have given the impression of a team going all out to avoid the humiliation of a home derby defeat.
Lennon’s final change was Leigh Griffiths for Christie. The manager stated after the game, not without justification, that Christie’s performance had been “flat”. Still, the sight of the team’s top scorer trudging off hardly inspired confidence of grabbing an equaliser. Griffiths, meanwhile, has looked well off the pace in his brief appearances of late. His only notable contribution was to welly a free-kick over the crossbar with his first touch. Tom Rogic – so often a thorn in Rangers side over the last three years – sat watching plaintively from the bench.
Rangers ended the decade as they began it with victory at Parkhead, the first time they’ve managed that since 2010. 10 years of unprecedented domestic success for Celtic has ended in a sour fashion. It’s up to Lennon to ensure that feeling doesn’t continue into 2020.