SEVCO RANGERS 1 CELTIC 2
SALUTE Brendan Rodgers’ Invincibles as they came from a goal down to power their way to their FIFTEENTH successive Premiership league triumph at Ibrox this afternoon.
The champions are now 19 points ahead with a game in hand as they head into the winter break and a well-deserved breather.
Nine games in December, eight wins and one draw – and the stalemate came against Manchester City in the Champions League encounter at the Etihad. It was also their third win over Sevco Rangers this season.
It’s a phenomenal performance from the Hoops and one that was cemented with today’s victory that was a combination of skill, power, courage and a never-say-die spirit.
And a manager in Rodgers who knows what he is doing and has a Plan B. And a Plan C is that’s not working. That is a winning formula.
Yet the Hoops looked strangely nervy in the opening 45 minutes and were giving themselves far too many problems with some slack passing out of defence.
Erik Sviatchenko, in particular, appeared to be strangely sloppy in his distribution and needlessly presented the ball to Barrie McKay inside the first 30 seconds.
A last-ditch tackle from Stuart Armstrong cut out the left-wing cross and the home side won a corner-kick only moments after the start.
Four minutes later, Craig Gordon, celebrating his 34th birthday, was forced to throw himself full length to his right to stop an 18-yard drive from Jason Holt.
Mark Warburton’s side, with nothing to lose after starting the game 16 points adrift, took the lead in the 12th minute and once again, unfortunately, Sviatchecnko, normally so composed and cool under pressure, played his unwitting role in the goal.
The Dane attempted to hit a crossfield pass, but it went straight to the feet of Kenny Miller who knocked it wide to James Tavernier. He played a quick one-two with Josh Windass, got round the back of the rearguard, and sizzled a low ball across the box.
The Celtic defence clocked off for a moment, particularly Mikael Lustig, and the veteran hitman raced in at the back post to thump the ball into the net from about three yards.
It was a real shocker and the Hoops eventually got into their stride as they prepared to retaliate.
In the 19th minute, Emilio Izaguirre combined to set Scott Sinclair racing clear, but the standside linesman brought the move to an abrupt halt by calling it offside.
TV pictures proved it was the wrong decision by the touchline offical. It wouldn’t be his last.
Three minutes later, James Forrest, who was rarely seen, set up Callum McGregor on the edge of the box, but his miscued shot flew harmlessly into the crowd.
Just after the half-hour mark, Sinclair again got his timing spot on as he thundered down on the unprotected Wes Foderingham. And, once again, the assistant referee flagged wrongly for offside.
Was it going to be one of those days? In the 33rd minute, the linesman had no option but to allow play to go on when Stuart Armstrong flicked the ball forward and on this occasion the pleas from Clint Hill and Co were ignored.
Sinclair miscontrolled the pass at first, but had the ability to get the ball where he wanted it most and he stepped away from Hill to drill a left-foot effort wide of the helpless Foderingham.
The cries of “Goal!” from the Celtic contingent were strangled when the ball smacked against the inside of the left-hand post and was then hastily booted away for a corner-kick by Hill.
The equaliser, though, was only a moment or two away. Sinclair swung in the left-wing corner-kick and Moussa Dembele lost his marker Danny Wilson at the back post, about 10 yards out.
The powerhouse striker took a touch with his right foot and then lashed in a left-foot piledriver that exploded into the roof of the net.
Foderingham was wasting his time as he threw a glove at the effort – it was a goal the moment it left the Celt’s boot, his 19th of the season and his fifth against the Ibrox side in three games.
There were six minutes of added-on time in the first-half after Joe Garner had suffered a shoulder knock following a collision with Sviatchenko. Martyn Waghorn came on in his place.
Sinclair almost gave the Hoops the advantage going into the interval with a curling right-foot shot as he cut in from the left, but Foderingham sprawled to hold the curling ball.
Four minutes into the second-half, Dembele, of all people, spurned the chance to give Rodgers’ men the lead.
Lustig picked out the French ace at the penalty spot and a goal looked a certainty, but he fluffed his final effort and Foderingham flopped on the ball – and breathed a sigh of relief.
A minute later, Forrest had another splendid opportunity, but his finishing effort blasted off the chest of the keeper and flew to safety.
In the 55th minute, though, Foderingham was left clutching air as McGregor sent over a delightful cross from the left that was met in acrobatic fashion by Dembele.
The visiting fans were already celebrating, but the ball clattered against the face of the crossbar and was booted clear.
Celtic were now the dominant force as they drove forward in search of a second goal.
Sviatchenko had rid himself of his first-half anxiety to settle in to his normal game alongside Jozo Simunovic.
Scott Brown was here, there and everywhere as he pushed his team-mates towards the other end of the pitch and Izaguirre was putting in a lung-bursting shift on the left. Armstrong was, well, the Armstrong we now all know and love.
Rodgers made an expected change in the 68th minute when he put on Patrick Roberts for Forrest, who hadn’t been able to pick up the pace of a fiery encounter.
Two minutes after entering the arena, the little on-loan Englishman helped to set up Sinclair for what turned out to be the winner.
Roberts dinked a lovely pass through the defence into the storming Armstrong. The on-fire midfielder immediately squared it across goal and Sinclair’s timing at the back post was impeccable as he strolled in to knock the ball into the net.
Six minutes later, with the home side under extreme pressure, Dembele and Roberts combined to set up Armstrong, but his shot was pushed away by the desperate Foderingham.
But there was a genuine scare for the Premiership kings 10 minutes from the end when Warburton’s men almost equalised on a breakaway.
A right-wing corner-kick from Armstrong was knocked down to McKay who picked out Andy Halliday on the right. He placed a ball in front of Miller at the far post and, thankfully, he didn’t make a good connection.
But his effort was strong enough to sweep wide of Gordon and hit the left-hand post before Brown hammered it away for a shy.
Sixty seconds afterwards, a goalbound effort from Armstrong was headed for a corner by Wilson and Foderingham then had two excellent stops to deny Sinclair and Armstrong.
Celtic finished on top and it was a day for the players the players deserved to lap up the applause at the end after a worrying start.
Dembele proved manager Rodgers correct in his decision-making and was a threat throughout the encounter with his strength and pace.
And the home side had no answer to the exhaustive raiding all day of matchwinner Sinclair.
But the club have reached this exalted position as a team and it is as a team they should take a bow.
Enjoy the winter break, Bhoys, and we’ll see you again on Scottish Cup duty against Albion Rovers on Sunday, January 22. No doubt, it will be the first step to a glorious Treble.
Happy New Year!
TEAM: Gordon; Lustig, Simunovic, Sviatchenko, Izaguirre; Brown, Armstrong; Forrest (sub: Roberts 69), McGregor (sub: Bitton 86), Sinclair; Dembele.