Celtic domination rings alarm bells for Van Gaal

Netherlands coach witnesses humiliation of his international players as Glasgow rivals demolish Rangers in Old Firm derby
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The Independent Online

Louis Van Gaal was in Glasgow during Sunday lunchtime in the pursuit of Total Football. Instead he found total destruction. The Netherlands' new coach came to check on some of the players he will construct his World Cup bid around: Celtic, though, may have taken a wrecking ball to that.

Louis Van Gaal was in Glasgow during Sunday lunchtime in the pursuit of Total Football. Instead he found total destruction. The Netherlands' new coach came to check on some of the players he will construct his World Cup bid around: Celtic, though, may have taken a wrecking ball to that.

Arthur Numan and Michael Mols can only think themselves lucky they were injured, otherwise they too might be worrying about their tattered reputations. Bert Konterman certainly is; Jaap Stam's understudy in the Dutch side was shredded by Henrik Larsson in the 6-2 Old Firm derby rout.

Rangers' right-back Fernando Ricksen, on the verge of a call-up before joining Rangers for £3.5m in the summer, was so bad coach Dick Advocaat hauled him off after only 23 minutes. Even the normally flawless Giovanni van Bronckhorst could do nothing to stem the tide.

It must have stirred an uncomfortable memory in Van Gaal of the night in Valencia four months ago when his reign at Barcelona came to an end. The similarities between that Champions' League semi-final and this game are uncanny: the loss of an early goal, 3-1 down by half-time and a sucker punch in added time. Still, at least Van Gaal can console himself with the fact that his trouncing was only by 5-2. The war cry of "6-2" is going to echo around Glasgow's unforgiving battleground for a long while. It was the biggest league defeat in 62 years (when the same scoreline occurred for Celtic in 1938), but not the biggest-ever, which remains the 7-1 League Cup Final defeat inflicted by Celtic on their rivals in 1957.

Was Van Gaal watching a landmark shift in the tide of a 122-year enmity? Or, did he, and Celtic, just get lucky by witnessing a one-off? Advocaat will hope it is the latter, and indeed he can point to a 5-1 hammering by Celtic on his first visit to Parkhead in November 1998 as evidence of how capricious the Old Firm game can be - Rangers responded that season by winning the Treble.

The Celtic manager, Martin O'Neill, insists he and his team will not be carried away, though his saturation coverage of Scotland's back pages yesterday conveyed that levitation seems within his grasp judging by the pictures of him jumping higher than Dick Fosbury. "Rangers remain the benchmark," he cautioned, "and I know they will renew their efforts. There is a fair amount of realism around here."

It is that mind-set which possibly ought to worry Advocaat more than the painful beating itself. When Celtic won 5-1 some 21 months ago, it came in the same month when Jozef Venglos's side had lost another derby to Rangers and to St Johnstone in the league while going out of the Uefa Cup to FC Zurich. The mild-mannered Slovak, Dr Jo, was no more capable of changing tides than he was of delivering a soliloquy from Hamlet.

O'Neill, however, has rejuvenated a side whose reputation was in tatters after finishing a record 21 points behind Rangers last season and capitulating 4-0 in the previous Old Firm contest in March. Apart from the additions of Chris Sutton (in exchange for Mark Viduka) and the Belgium defender Joos Valgaeren, plus the return of talisman Larsson from a broken leg, it is the same group of players.

Well, not all. Bobby Petta, who was voted man of the match against Rangers and tore his compatriot Ricksen apart, was a laughing stock at Parkhead until O'Neill turned up. The former Ipswich winger was like a frightened rabbit, too scared to move let alone beat a man, but O'Neill's patient coaxing has allowed the Dutchman to become the delivery service that Sutton thrives upon.

"What has happened with Bobby has been incredible," said Larsson, who knew Petta from Feyenoord, where the winger played in the same youth side as Van Bronckhorst. "He now has confidence because Martin has given it to him. There is a spirit here that was missing last season." Stilian Petrov was another cowed by last season's turmoil. Against Rangers, the young Bulgarian out-played, outpassed and out-fought Barry Ferguson so much that Scotland's Player of the Year lost his temper and was sent off.

The intriguing point is that, until the Old Firm game, Celtic's four league wins were more notable for their determination to grind out results than for flair. Now, they appear to have both. "We are not getting carried away after five games," said Sutton, "but we have put Rangers under a bit of pressure now." Suddenly, it's "game on" in Glasgow.

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