Celtic suffer again

Kilmarnock 0 Celtic 4
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The Independent Football

It was almost scripted the moment Celtic lost in the Uefa Cup final last Wednesday night that they would then lose their domestic crown. They did so yesterday at Rugby Park, but no one could have scripted the drama that was squeezed out of every last second of this Scottish Premier League title race.

Forget the sun of Seville, nowhere could have matched the rising temperature down in Ayrshire as Martin O'Neill's side threw everything but the kitchen sink at Kilmarnock in a bid to hang on to their status as champions. Just like Bayer Leverkusen last year, they found defeat on Europe's bigger stages compounded by one at home.

The German side were branded as chokers but few would say that of Celtic. They lost the title on a goal difference of one that came with Mikel Arteta's stoppage-time penalty at Ibrox, yet pushed their great rivals all the way.

Indeed, for eight minutes in the second half, it was Celtic, not Rangers, who had control of the championship's destiny. Alan Thompson's 54th-minute penalty took Celtic above Rangers on goal difference but the midfielder would later miss another spot-kick and that would prove pivotal.

O'Neill had nothing but praise for his players and declared: "In my first season at the club we won the treble, then we won the championship last term, but this is without doubt our most memorable season.

"I hope I speak for the players in that this has been a truly fantastic season. These things don't come around that often and I want to be wrong, but it might be a few years before a Scottish club contests a European final again.

"To give a performance like that after the effort and mental pain of the Uefa Cup final defeat showed amazing character," O'Neill added. "All credit to Rangers, but we have made a phenomenal effort to get 97 points despite playing so many games in Europe this season.

"Nights like winning at Ewood Park, Anfield and Stuttgart in the Uefa Cup will not come around again. We'll be back next season.

"I made a statement earlier this season about our team being astonishingly brilliant in one game but I meant all season. There is no doubt that the crowd are the best supporters going and, between them and the players, they've got a club to be proud of."

That view was echoed by the Celtic captain, Paul Lambert, who said: "At one point were eight points Rangers. We have had a great season and might not have anything to show for it, but would not swap that for anything and I'm sure the fans feel the same."

Because kick-off was delayed by a few minutes, Celtic knew that Rangers had gone ahead before they had even begun their task. However, they quickly sized up that job with relish and Chris Sutton brought some hope in the 16th minute when he met Thompson's corner and powered a header past Gordon Marshall.

The goalkeeper may have played at Celtic a few years ago but there no favours, as he showed with a splendid double save in the 42nd minute from Henrik Larsson's venomous shot and Stilian Petrov's effort from the rebound.

However, Sutton delivered another twist to the title race when he made it 2-0 two minutes before the interval, meeting another Thompson corner and then hooking the ball in as he lay on his back after his header had been blocked.

The huge Bhoys support cranked up the volume inside Rugby Park and the decibel level went off the scale when Thompson put them in front of Rangers, on goal difference, with his penalty nine minutes into the second half after Sutton's run had been illegally halted by Shaun Dillon.

Celtic were rampant. They chased everything. Another Sutton run ended with a cross which Larsson stabbed against the inside of the post - just as news came of the Ronald de Boer's goal at Ibrox which revived Rangers.

Incredibly, Celtic won another penalty with 11 minutes left, after Thompson was brought down by Marshall. This time, however, he swept his kick over the bar.

Petrov made it 4-0 in the 83rd minute, coolly finishing after Larsson's measured pass put him clear. They desperately tried to find a fifth goal which would brought them the title, but instead it was Arteta who struck at Ibrox to confirm Rangers' triumph.

"That's the way it goes," conceded Sutton. "I think everybody could have virtually predicted the result at Ibrox before kick-off. Well, many people did. It is disappointing for the players who have put the effort in."

Kilmarnock (3-5-2): Marshall; McLaughlin, Dindeleux, Dillon; Fowler, Mahood, Locke (McDonald, h-t), Fulton (Hay, 81), Canero; McSwegan, Boyd (Di Giacomo 60). Substitutes not used: Stewart (gk), Murray.

Celtic (3-5-2): Sanchez Broto; Baldé, Varga, Mjallby; Agathe (Smith, 74), Petrov, Lennon, Maloney (Lambert, 13), Thompson; Sutton, Larsson. Substitutes not used: Douglas (gk), Crainey.

Referee: K Clark.

Bookings: Kilmarnock: Marshall, McLaughlin, Mahood, McSwegan. Celtic: Sanchez Broto, Thompson, Sutton, Lennon, Mjallby.

Man of the match: Larsson.

Attendance: 16,722.