Robson penalty puts pressure on Rangers
Celtic 3 Rangers 2
The stadium DJ ended this cracker – a fitting final Old Firm derby in a season likely to go to the wire – with a cute, if acidic touch. He played Queen and David Bowie's "Under Pressure". After this, Rangers are.
They have three games in hand and the title is still in their hands, but they trail Celtic by five points in the Scottish Premier League table this morning and have new injury and suspension worries – as if the nine players who have been missing in recent games have not been enough.
Hot, sunny conditions took a visible toll on a visiting team who were playing their 59th game of a quadruple-chasing campaign that will comprise 67 matches at least, or 68 if they reach the Uefa Cup final following Thursday's semi-final second leg in Florence.
They did not look tired early on. After Celtic's Scott McDonald opened the scoring early on, Rangers equalised with the centre-half David Weir's header from one corner and took the lead when Daniel Cousin nodded home from another. When McDonald scored his second just before half-time, with a neat turn and chip in the area which was aided by a deflection from Christian Dailly's attempted block, it was still anyone's game.
But then Weir, at 37 one of the rocks on which Rangers' season has been built, had to go off early in the second half, with a groin strain. That left Rangers with deputies in goal (Neil Alexander, replacing the injured Allan McGregor), and in both centre-back slots. Amdy Faye replaced Weir alongside Dailly, who was only playing that role because Carlos Cuellar was suspended.
With McDonald a handful throughout, Rangers were always going to be tested without a trio at the back who, as their manager, Walter Smith, said afterwards, "have been the cornerstone of what we have achieved this season". So it transpired. With just over 20 minutes remaining, McDonald ran free again and the right-back Kirk Broadfoot's clumsy challenge as the Australian entered the box led to a penalty which was converted by Barry Robson.
As the last man, Broadfoot could have been sent off; the referee, Craig Thomson, only booked him. In a frantic contest Thomson did well, mostly, although McDonald's first goal looked offside and TV replays confirmed that. Celtic's Dutch striker, Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink, was lucky to get only a yellow card for kicking Faye in the chest and Rangers' Steven Whittaker got a second yellow and his marching orders for a less dangerous challenge, late in the game, on Shunsuke Nakamura.
But who should be the happier manager after this? Smith, who knows his team can afford to lose one of their six remaining league games, even if Celtic win all three of their own? Or Strachan, who has overseen two wins over Rangers in 11 days and felt defiant enough to say with some passion yesterday: "We are the champions until someone takes it off us."
The effect of this latest win, Strachan added, was that: "It makes us feel better about ourselves. There's a dressing room feeling good right now and you can't want more than that."
He refused to criticise his Polish goalkeeper, Artur Boruc, who has a history of inflammatory behaviour, for wearing a T-shirt under his jersey saying "God Bless the Pope". He displayed it at the end. "He's not a bad lad, to be fair, is he?" Strachan said, apparently referring to the Pope, not Boruc. "If it was Myra Hindley, I might have a problem."
Strachan said his side had reacted to their first lead negatively, and to going ahead again positively. The difference was their reaction to pressure. In the first half, they did not handle it as Rangers came back at them. In the second, with Rangers flagging, they did.
Weir said Rangers could cope with the pressure. "We will respond in the right way," he said. "You can come out fighting, or wave the white flag. We'll come out fighting."
Goals: McDonald (4) 1-0; Weir (17) 1-1; Cousin (28) 1-2; McDonald (43) 2-2; Robson pen (69) 3-2.
Celtic (4-4-2): Boruc; Hinkel, Caldwell, McManus (O'Dea, 66), Naylor; Nakamura, Hartley (S Brown, 83), Robson, McGeady; Vennegoor of Hesselink (Samaras, 68), McDonald. Substitutes not used: M Brown (gk), Caddis, Donati, Wilson.
Rangers (4-1-4-1): Alexander; Broadfoot, Dailly, Weir (Faye, 51), Papac; Hemdani (Darcheville, 79); Novo, Ferguson, Davis, Whittaker; Cousin. Substitutes not used: Smith (gk), Boyd, Lennon, McMillan, Fleck.
Referee: C Thomson.
Booked: Celtic Robson, Naylor, Vennegoor of Hesselink, Hartley. Rangers Broadfoot.
Sent off: Whittaker (90).
Man of the match: McDonald.