Pragmatism runs bone-deep in Walter Smith and a man so hardened by a lifetime steeped in football will never look to one result for a sense of vindication. Yet he could have been forgiven for leaving Celtic Park nursing a rueful smile yesterday. He watched a much maligned signing score twice, the boldness of his team selection pay off and a sense of worth return to his side. This was an Old Firm encounter that allowed reputations to be redeemed.
Smith trusted in his instincts, in the way true football men do when disquiet begins to circle. The opening goal came from Daniel Cousin, a player thought to be beyond consideration, while Kenny Miller's two strikes will have felt like a liberation to the former Celtic forward. "I was under more pressure coming here than he was," Smith said wryly. "I was just pleased we got the goals, no matter who they came from."
Few managers know as intimately how finely balanced these encounters tend to be – this was Smith's 40th Old Firm match – and he sought to tip the odds in his favour with a team selection that could only have been foreseen by a fantasist. Cousin is a player whose physical gifts can be undermined by a frail mentality. It was subtlety of thought that brought reward, though, as he chased Pedro Mendes's pass down the left in the 37th minute. Cousin surged beyond Mark Wilson into the penalty area and as Artur Boruc and the Celtic defenders anticipated a cut-back, he slid a shot in at the near post.
Gordon Strachan constructs his teams to assail opponents down the flanks and Rangers were negligent in the aftermath of scoring. Only three minutes passed before Aiden McGeady's cross landed at Sasa Papac's feet, but the full-back wafted his clearance straight at Georgios Samaras, who tucked the ball home.
The visitors did not allow their regret to bedevil them after the interval. Before a pattern had taken hold, Celtic's failure to clear an attack decisively brought their downfall. The ball reached Kevin Thomson and he crossed to Miller at the back post, who steered his volley beyond Boruc.
The instinct in falling behind is to recoil from caution, but in doing so, Strachan lost his grip on the game. As Steven Davis lined up a corner, the Celtic manager instructed Shunsuke Nakamura to push up, leaving Mendes unmarked. Davis slid the ball to the Portuguese midfielder and his 25-yard shot arrowed into the net. His touch was assured all afternoon, his display self-possessed, and the goal an emphatic indication of his quality.
A kind of mania then briefly flared. Cousin received a second yellow card for challenging Stephen McManus with his elbows aloft. Yet the fact that the Celtic defender did not claim a foul suggests a lack of intent on Cousin's part. As if the tumult was contagious, Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink then kicked out at Kirk Broadfoot after the two had tussled: another red card.
With Rangers ascendant, another sumptuous crossfield pass by Mendes released Broadfoot, whose centre was spilled by Boruc, Miller turning in his second goal. Even Nakamura's injury-time free-kick could not dampen Rangers fans' delight.
"These results come along every few years and we have to take them on the chin," said Strachan grimly.
Goals: Cousin (37) 0-1; Samaras (40) 1-1; Miller (53) 1-2; Mendes (61) 1-3; Miller (79) 1-4; Nakamura (90) 2-4.
Celtic (4-4-2) Boruc; Hinkel, Caldwell, McManus, Wilson (Hutchison, 84); Nakamura, Hartley (Robson, 71), S Brown, McGeady; Samaras (Vennegoor of Hesselink, 71), Maloney. Substitutes not used: M Brown, Loovens, O'Dea, Crosas.
Rangers (4-4-2): McGregor; Broadfoot, Bougherra, Weir, Papac; Davis, Mendes, Thomson, Adam (Novo, 78); Cousin, Miller. Substitutes not used: Alexander, Edu, Dailly, Lafferty, Niguez, McMillan.
Referee: D McDonald (Scotland).
Booked: Celtic McManus, Samaras; Rangers Thomson, Cousin, Adam, McGregor, Broadfoot.
Sent off: Celtic Vennegoor; Rangers Cousin.
Man of the match: Mendes.
Attendance: 58,595.Reuse content