CELTIC 2 RANGERS 1
A SPECTACULAR double strike from Paulo Bernardo and Kyogo Furuhashi fired Celtic to a crucial triumph at Parkhead this afternoon.
It was a rollicking, rocking encounter as the champions eased eight points ahead at the Premiership pinnacle in their quest for their twelfth title in 13 years, but they made life difficult for themselves over the 100-plus minutes.
The visitors were reduced to 10 men in the 71st minute when Leon Balogun floored Daizen Maeda as the Japanese speedster raced through on goal.
Referee Nick Walsh had no option but to banish the Ibrox defender and there could be no argument as the player headed for the tunnel.
STRIKE ONE…Paulo Bernardo thunders an unstoppable right-foot drive towards the Ibrox net for the opening goal.
The hosts were two goals ahead at the time and were in total control, but, inexplicably, allowed the visitors back into the contest when James Tavernier sent a 20-yard free-kick high past Joe Hart in the 88th minute.
Eight minutes of stoppage time and then an extra couple made it a nervy conclusion for Brendan Rodgers’ side who should have put the game to bed much earlier in the confrontation.
The deadlock was broken with a wonder strike from Bernardo in the 25th minute that almost ripped the net from the stanchion behind Jack Butland.
Luis Palma whipped in a right-wing corner-kick to the near post where Abdallah Sima rose to head away. However, his clearance fell only as far as the lurking on-loan Benfica midfielder.
Bernardo hit the ball first-time with ferocious timing from 16 yards and his effort simply bulleted past the Ibrox keeper at his left to thump against the net.
Parkhead rocked to its foundations as 60,000 joyous fans rose in unison to greet the brilliant effort fromthe new Bhoy who only scored his first goal for the Hoops in the Boxing Day win at Dundee.
Bernardo picked up a booking from over-fussy match offical Walsh for celebrating with the supporters.
STRIKE TWO…Kyogo Furuhashi fires a breathtaking shot high past jack Butland.
It was fitting the Portuguese ace should get the opener after coming close twice beforehand with a header and another rasping drive that zipped just inches wide of the target.
He should have done a lot better in the 12th minute when Palma picked him out with a clever cross from the left, but Bernardo sent his six-yard header spiralling past the far post with Butland rooted to the spot.
In the 23rd minute, a vicious drive whistled just wide before he had better fortune two minutes later with the crucial deadlock-breaking strike.
The first 45 minutes were played at a frantic pace with the tempo high straight from the kick-off.
Ever-alert Hart produced two excellent saves to deny the visitors after a couple of alarming lapses from his defenders.
In the seventh minute, the veteran keeper displayed lightning reflexes to deflect a cross-shot from Ross McAusland to safety and he was equal to the task when Greg Taylor switched off when Butland launched a long ball directly into the danger zone.
The left-back allowed McAusland to run onto the pass to whip in a low drive, but the Hoops No.1 was equal to the task. Todd Cantwell had an opportinity from the rebound, but once again the Hoops No.1 reacted swiftly to repel the midfielder.
In the 35th minute, Rodgers was forced to make a change after Stephen Welsh, in for the injured Cameron Carter-Vickers, hurt his left shoulder in an awkward fall.
Maik Nawrocki, who hadn’t figured since the League Cup loss against Kilmarnock in the third game of the season, came on in his place.
The Polish centre-back slid into the back-four as though he had been there throughout the campaign. It was a highly impressive return for the summer recruit.
PARADISE…Kyogo Furuhashi is congratulated by ecstatic Celtic team-mates Daizen Maeda, Paulo Bernardo, Alistair Johnston, Luis Palma, Liam Scales and Callum McGregor after his wonder second goal.
The second-half had an explosive start when Kyogo claimed a breathtaking goal for Scotland’s title kings as he notched his seventh strike this year against the Govan club.
Maeda and Nawrocki were involved in the build-up on the right with the defender picking out Matt O’Riley with an astute forward pass.
The stylish Danish international playmaker moved the ball onto the Japanese hitman lurking 25 yards outside the box.
The danger signals immediately flared as Kyogo jinked inside and then dragged the ball to his left before sending a truly stupendous 47th-minute strike high past Butland into his top left-hand corner.
It was a mesmerising piece of brilliance from the forward and once again underlined his worth to the team.
In the 54th minute, O’Riley was decked when he was caught by a flailing arm from Dujon Sterling and he was forced to go off with blood streaming from his nose.
However, the midfielder returned and showed true grit as he lasted the entire encounter, despite being clattered for a second time by John Souttar.
JOLLY RODGERS…the Celtic boss acclaims Kyogo Furuhashi’s superb goal to make it 2-0.
Rodgers made a second change in in the 71st minute when he replaced Bernardo with David Turnbull and only moments later Balogun saw red when he hauled down Maeda.
In the 83rd minute, the Hoops gaffer made three changes as he took off marksman Kyogo, Maeda and Palma and sent on Oh Hyeon-gyu, Liel Abada and Mikey Johnston.
Some slack play allowed the 10-man opposition back into the match and Tavernier had the nerve ends jangling with a free-kick that swirled high past Hart.
Celtic were wasteful in some of their forward movements and Alistair Johnston, in particular, could do with a crash course in how to pick out a team-mate when he is in a good position on the right.
The final whistle was greeted with almighty cheers amid huge relief as Rodgers smiled at a job well done.
Plus it was the Irishman’s twelfth victory in 15 games over the Ibrox outfit.
Man of the Match? Take your pick from goalscorers Bernardo and Kygo, skipper supreme McGregor and the hard-working O’Riley.
Does it get any better than this?
This will surely prove to be a pivotal victory and a fitting performance as the curtain came down on an eventful 2023 in Paradise.
TEAM: Hart; A Johnston, Welsh (sub: Nawrocki 35), Scales, Taylor; Bernardo (sub: Turnbull 71), McGregor, O’Riley; Maeda (sub: Abada 83), Kyogo (sub: Oh 83), Palma (sub: M Johnston 83).