COMETH the hour cometh the man. The phrase might have been coined for Ally McCoist, who once again provided the telling contribution for Rangers.
And yet it was not entirely unexpected that McCoist should make the breakthrough in this Scottish Cup semi-final. The 35-year-old striker is having an Indian summer in his career which has seen his drive and goals provide Rangers' supporters with genuine hopes of securing a League and Cup double. Hearts await Rangers in the final at Celtic Park on 16 May.
McCoist knows what a 10th League title would mean to his club and has almost singlehandedly dragged Rangers back into a campaign that looked well beyond them a matter of weeks ago.
In contrast Celtic looked a tired side for most of the second half which was dominated by Rangers and, given better finishing, the margin of victory would have been much greater.
The Rangers midfield developed a stranglehold on the match, but while McCoist provided a cutting edge, the saves of Andy Goram were again crucial. It was the Rangers goalkeeper who moved Tommy Burns, the last Celtic manager, to proclaim, "You can carve it on my tombstone, 'This man broke my heart'."
Goram, the Scotland keeper produced three saves in the first half to deny Celtic the chance of taking the lead. A Henrik Larsson effort in the 17th minute came off Goram's chest before rebounding to safety and he again saved well in the 23rd minute from a powerful Craig Burley shot. His third crucial save of the opening period came at the stroke of half- time as he blocked Phil O'Donnell's effort.
The Celtic midfield was denied the chance of possession in that crucial area as Rangers moved up a gear and began to use the influence of Jonas Thern and Jorg Albertz. The partnership, along with Rino Gattuso, provided too much mobility and vision for Celtic to harness and the balance of the game swung towards the Celtic goal.
Jonathan Gould produced a fine save to deny Brian Laudrup in the 62nd minute and he came up with a better effort four minutes later as he got down to push away an Albertz drive.
With the pressure mounting, Rangers found the breakthrough they had been seeking with 15 minutes to go. Albertz on the left provided a low cross which was headed home from six yards by McCoist. The German came close a minute later with a curling shot which finished just wide and, with four minutes remaining, Gould again performed heroics to deny Laudrup.
The game was put beyond Celtic with two minutes left. Albertz collected in midfield and aimed for goal, eluding two tackles on the way before sending his finishing shot high into the net.
With seconds left, Burley replied for Celtic but at that stage the majority of their supporters were heading for home.
Celtic now face two important league games over the next seven days. They face Kilmarnock on Wednesday night before travelling to Ibrox next Sunday as they look to recapture their form of earlier in the season. The strains of leading the table are beginning on several of their players with the midfield especially visibly tiring as the game wore on. Morten Wieghorst, the Danish midfielder who was suspended for semi-final, will again be available and Wim Jansen, the Celtic coach, might well consider changing his formation for what will be the most important game in his period in charge.
Rangers, meanwhile, continue to gather momentum, with McCoist the talisman for their season. He above all appears to have galvanised Walter Smith's men as they look to give their manager a farewell present to remember. Rangers' cause will undoubtedly be helped by the services of Lorenzo Amoruso, the Italian defender who was brought on for his debut almost a season after signing for the club.
He has missed the entire season so far through injury, but demonstrated after coming on for Gordan Petric that he has the skills to settle quickly into the Rangers defence.
From the position a few weeks back when they could do no right and Ibrox looked to heading for an empty season, Rangers are now finding the ball is rolling for them once again and it would be a brave man who would bet against them realising their dreams over the next few weeks.
Goals: McCoist (75), 1-0; Albertz (88) 2-0; Burley (90) 2-1.
Celtic (3-4-3): Gould; Annoni, Stubbs (Hannah, 71; Blinker, 86), Rieper; Lambert, Burley, O'Donnell, Boyd; Donnelly, Larsson, Brattbakk (Jackson, 71).
Rangers (4-4-2): Goram; Bjorklund, Gough, Petric (Amoruso, 19), Cleland; Thern, McCall, Gattuso, Albertz; Laudrup, McCoist (Durie, 88).
Referee: J McCluskey (Stewarton).
Bookings: Rangers: McCall, Cleland, Amoruso.
Man of the match: Gattuso.