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Comment: Neil Lennon's Celtic have proved that Steven Gerrard and Rangers still have a gap to bridge

Contrasting fortunes: Scott Brown proved his doubters wrong with an influential display, while second-half substitute Alfredo Morelos is still waiting for his first goal against Celtic
Contrasting fortunes: Scott Brown proved his doubters wrong with an influential display, while second-half substitute Alfredo Morelos is still waiting for his first goal against Celtic

By Julian Taylor

The generally accepted understanding when picking apart this season's Premiership is that we will experience a close affair between champions Celtic and a reinvigorated Rangers. Then there is the idea of the four Old Firm derbies to singularly determine the destination of the title.

The bigger picture beyond Celtic's 2-0 victory at Ibrox yesterday hasn't changed too much, especially at such an early stage. Rangers, for all their commitment - excessively so, in the case of Jordan Jones - were as bereft of conviction as quietly confident Celtic were clinical when opportunity arose.

A maximum 12 points from four games is evidence of a strong Parkhead force of will taking shape. There are fools, somewhere out there, who had the audacity to brand Neil Lennon's side underdogs for an Old Firm derby in 2019/20.

One of Lennon's main themes is about 'earning the right' to play. In this respect, if the diligence and coordination in games is spot on, then the attacking gifts duly unwrap. Unlike the first-half of Celtic's recent Champions League shocker against Cluj, a costly episode, the team were on message from the off.

Rangers chief Steven Gerrard has taken responsibility for his side's disappointment. He must now absorb an awkward lesson about facing teams with superb discipline. Counterpart Lennon has such forward riches at his disposal; yesterday was all about controlled aggression for Celtic, something they lacked in visiting Ibrox last term.

Scott Brown had been criticised about his staying power and, indeed, a number from the Celtic ranks openly questioned the wisdom of the midfielder retaining a starting place. Too old. Too slow. Not for the first time did the veteran have the last laugh. Pictoral proof at the end showed the bond between captain and manager remains solid.

In terms of decision making, Gerrard showed willingness to make controversial calls, even if those of a tactical nature proved to be dubious, looking at Rangers' ineffective narrow shape.

Nevertheless, to put Alfredo Morelos - late Europa League goal hero against Legia Warsaw - on the bench in favour of Jermaine Defoe was a heavily-discussed choice. As was Gerrard opting out of an initial wide dimension, certainly puzzling in view of untried Celtic full backs Hatem Elhamed and Boli Bolingoli.

The concerns from Celtic's perspective around Bolingoli and Christopher Jullien were unfounded- both were solid, giving Lennon a decent platform of satisfaction, moving on. One less thing for the Lurgan native to worry about.

Individual mistakes - Connor Goldson's error contributed to Odsonne Edouard's opener - and a lack of imagination, meanwhile, are aspects Rangers must review before the rivals collide again in December. Of course, there are Europa League campaigns before then, agreeable distractions for both clubs as a whole.

Speckled as Old Firm games are with sub-plots and wiry individual battles, what invariably matters is keeping cool under fire. And Edouard is about the best there is when it comes to commissioning an icy finish. The Frenchman's sixth goal of the season on 32 minutes, just when Rangers were edging territory, was precious.

Morelos's eventual arrival for Defoe was greeted raucously- the Colombian, though, must wait to break his goal drought in this most significant domestic fixture. Edouard is long past this particular millstone.

Yesterday was a day for new Bhoys, albeit Lennon's hand had been somewhat forced. Moritz Bauer, a loan signing from Stoke City, debuted, the Austrian helping nullify Rangers' laboured pursuits. But Parkhead manager Lennon's sense of timing was unerring - smart to shoehorn Olivier Ntcham in for James Forrest to protect the lead, in full knowledge that a major strength, the counter attack, was still available.

On such a note, who thought that Jonny Hayes, a fringe figure about the Scottish champions, would conclude matters? The threat of Rangers being undone by Celtic's speed came to fruition in injury time, the Dubliner ending fading Ibrox hopes.

Jones's recklessness towards Bauer at the climax, when the Northern Ireland international saw red, was an obvious result of frustration from Rangers as a collective. Disappointed Gerrard has indicated a period of bench warming to add to the embarrassment the player himself must feel this morning. A pointed lesson for Jones, amid attempts to get established at Ibrox.

Another thought. Curiously, if Lennon's much-vaunted predecessor, Brendan Rodgers, was still in charge, this might have been hailed as something akin to an era-defining, strategic master class.

Those critical of the Parkhead board in reappointing Lennon are already scrambling to review initial petted lip judgements.

On the other hand, Gerrard must find greater tactical answers in forthcoming derbies.

Apart from an inferior number of variables up front compared to Celtic, there remains something, intangibly, lacking. Game management, an absolute ruthlessness, perhaps.

Whatever it is, at least Gerrard has consolation in that a stimulating campaign has a long, long way to go.

Belfast Telegraph


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