Rangers count cost of defeat to Celtic
From a neutral's point of view, Wednesday night's Old Firm derby – which Celtic won 2-1 with Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink's injury-time header – was an absolute treat, but Rangers will rue the collateral damage of a frenzied 95 minutes as much as the scoreline itself.
Allan McGregor, the outstanding goalkeeper in Scotland this season, went off with an ankle injury and will probably miss Sunday's Scottish Cup semi-final against St Johnstone and also, perhaps, next week's Uefa Cup semi-final, first leg, at home against Fiorentia. The midfielder Lee McCulloch, with a foot injury sustained on Wednesday, could miss both games too.
There is also disciplinary fallout, following the red cards to centre-half Carlos Cuellar (in the 70th minute, for saving a goal with his hands), and his defensive partner David Weir after the final whistle, for his role in a mass brawl that also led to Celtic's Gary Caldwell being "sent off".
Neither man was actually shown a card in public but both were called to referee Kenny Clark's room afterwards and told they would be reported to the SFA for violent conduct. "Both will be suspended," an SFA official confirmed yesterday.
It goes without saying that a football match is no place for grown men to throw punches at each other. That is unacceptable. The offenders will be punished. Rightly so.
But it was the sheer intensity of this high-stakes game – an intensity that spilled over into a mêlée – that provided the remarkable conclusion and a night of twists, turns and moments of breathtaking play.
Shunsuke Nakamura's opening screamer of a goal – the strike of the Scottish Premier League season – took a bewildering turn in the air to get past McGregor. Nacho Novo's low, diagonal equaliser was a clinical finish to a sweet move. Hesselink's last-gasp nod-in came from finesse under pressure.
Celtic should have been ahead already but a hobbling McGregor had already saved a penalty from Scott McDonald, awarded after Cuellar had pushed a Nakamura drive over the bar. This was the gutsy, marvellous, highly-charged, high-tempo stuff Old Firm derbies should be made of. All too often those elements been missing as Glasgow crunches have turned into whimpers in foregone conclusions of seasons.
The dust-up at full-time will not be forgotten. Nor the incident when a missile was thrown at the Rangers doctor while treating McGregor. Disciplinary action will be taken, again quite rightly. But the fisticuffs – "handbags" as more than one player said – will be forgiven. Most of the half-dozen players involved, including opposing captains, Barry Ferguson and Stephen McManus, are Scotland internationals who are no more likely to bear lasting grudges than Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo after their 2006 World Cup argy-bargy, which was altogether more serious.
So the dust will settle, although perhaps not fully by the time the Old Firm meet again, at the same venue on 27 April for the final derby of the season. By that time, assuming Celtic win their SPL game at home to Aberdeen this weekend (while Rangers play in the Cup), Celtic will be two points clear in the SPL table, albeit having played three games more than Rangers.
The odds are still in Rangers' favour for the title. But the collateral damage will not help. Weir will miss the Cup semi-final. Cuellar will miss the Celtic game, and is now one booking away from an extra one-game ban because of his points tally for cards. Any fitness concerns over McGregor, the third member of Rangers' rock-solid back line triangle, can only hamper them further.
"I'm not a medical man but the way he came off suggests he could be struggling for a week or so," said the Rangers assistant manager, Ally McCoist.
Celtic's manager, Gordon Strachan, reiterated after the match that he has not been unhappy with his side's effort in recent times – not even in a recent run of one win in seven games – and the only difference now is that chances are being converted.
Quite possibly he really believes that, although Celtic have come unstuck all too often in low-key matches against beatable opposition when, quite frankly, they did not show the urgency required to get results. They showed it on Wednesday, the fifth time this season an injury-time goal has turned things in their favour. As Strachan's counterpart, Walter Smith, said: "There's still a lot of football to be played."
An epic derby has made more of that football suddenly more relevant.