Football: Burley blows open title race for Celtic

Celtic 2 Rangers 0
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The Independent Online
David McKinney

Celtic 2 Rangers 0

New Year, new script. Celtic found the key to the door of the Rangers defence to record their first win in the Old Firm derby for 11 games, yet the form of Andy Goram, the Rangers goalkeeper, was such that it took two goals of stunning quality to give Celtic the victory their overall play deserved.

Craig Burley and Paul Lambert scored in the second half to close up the title race, with Rangers now holding a one-point lead over Celtic and a two-point advantage over Hearts in the Premier Division. Apart from spells at the beginning and end of the game, the visitors failed to impose themselves, as they have done so often in these games.

The form of Lambert and Burley, the goalscorers, as well as that of Marc Rieper, Alan Stubbs and Enrico Annoni was crucial to Celtic's victory as every one of those players gave as good a performance as they have all season. There was a starting place for the first time for Harald Brattbakk, the Austrian striker, signed for pounds 4.2m from Rosenborg Trondheim, but he was given a close-up view of Goram's abilities, the Ranges goalkeeper once again threatening to break Celtic's heart.

He saved in the 27th minute from Brattbakk's angled shot from inside the penalty area and, with Tom Boyd delivering a pass from the left nine minutes later, Brattbakk escaped the attentions of Richard Gough, the Rangers captain, before shooting and once again watching Goram produce a superb stop.

The first half was largely a tactical battle, with both sides committing five players each to a congested midfield. The result was that, apart from Brattbakk's chances, the two goalkeepers had a relatively quiet time.

The transformation on the restart was dramatic as Celtic forced the play, squeezed the game and searched for the opening goal. Burley had a shot deflected two minutes into the second half and from the resultant corner Stubbs saw his goal-bound header diverted by the hand of Goram, who produced a fine flying save.

With Celtic continuing to dominate, Rieper headed over shortly afterwards and on the hour Goram again denied Brattbakk and Henrik Larsson saw his shot blocked on the line by Alex Cleland.

The opening goal was a well-taken effort by Burley in the 66th minute. Jackie McNamara sent a reverse pass to his midfield team-mate, and the former Chelsea player scored with a powerful angled drive into the bottom corner of the net for his eighth goal of the season.

Celtic's ascendancy faltered for a while, and with the introduction of Paul Gascoigne in the 71st minute for Jorg Albertz, Rangers threatened to take advantage of the home side's hesitancy. However, any doubts as to the destination of the points were wiped out with a cracking second goal for Celtic five minutes from time.

The move was preceded by an outstanding save by Goram, who denied Darren Jackson with a magnificent parry. But the ball was still in play and found its way to Lambert, whose 25-yard drive crashed in off the top of the post.

There was no complaint from Walter Smith, the Rangers manager, who recognised that his side had been second best on the day. He said: "We were beaten by the better side, with Celtic looking more hungry for the points."

For Wim Jansen, the Celtic manager, the victory will justify the changes he has brought to the club since arriving in the summer. His signings are beginning to gell and the hope of the Celtic coach is that the players will carry a new belief into the new year. True to form, however, Jansen refused to get carried away with this victory.

"It is only three points, the same as any other game and there is still a long way to go before the title will be decided," he said. "Yes, I was pleased for my players and pleased with the performance, but there is a lot of hard work still to be done."

The result at Celtic Park will ensure that with Celtic and Hearts both competing, this is one championship which will be more open than in the past when Rangers have virtually wrapped up the title by the turn of the year.

Celtic (3-5-2): Gould; Annoni, Stubbs, Rieper; McNamara, Burley, Lambert, Wieghorst, Boyd; Brattbakk (Jackson, 84), Larsson. Substitutes not used: Donnelly, Hannah.

Rangers (3-5-2): Goram; McCall, Gough, Porrini; Gattuso (Durie, 59), Thern, Ferguson, Albertz (Gascoigne, 71), Cleland; Negri, Laudrup. Substitute not used: Snelders (gk).

Referee: H Dallas (Motherwell).