John Hartson continued his one-man mission to frustrate Rangers as he struck for the fourth Old Firm derby in a row to help Celtic supplant their rivals at the top of the Scottish Premier League.
The Welsh striker needed a slice of fortune to beat goalkeeper Stefan Klos barely 20 seconds into the second half, but few would deny that Hartson deserves a change of luck. Just 20 weeks ago, he walked off the same Ibrox pitch with a goal and a victory to his name - but also a back injury that would deprive him of a place in the Uefa Cup final.
Though Hartson's intended cross took a slight deflection off Zurab Khizanishvili's arm, the Celtic striker had no doubt about the legitimacy of his claim. "That is my 50th goal for Celtic and it's a milestone for me," he said.
"It probably needed something like that to beat Klos, who was unbelievable. My last goal for Celtic was also here. It has been a long road back since my surgery and I have had to learn to do even the basics again. If Rangers had won, they would have gone five points clear, so this was a massive result for us."
Rangers looked a pale imitation of the side who had controlled Panathinaikos in Athens last Wednesday to go top of the Champions' League group that includes Manchester United. They now no longer hold the same status in Scotland, after their 100 per cent record evaporated in the eighth game of the campaign.
Given that it took a goal difference of just one to separate the two sides last season, this could turn out to be a decisive moment by next May.
Martin O'Neill, however, refused to be convinced. "We took more points from Rangers last season in the head-to-head and still lost the League," said the Celtic manager wryly.
O'Neill's team proved they had brains to match their brawn, with the deployment of Chris Sutton in defence ensuring that Celtic never even missed Bobo Balde, who was serving a ban for his red card against Hibernian last week. Celtic denied their rivals space in midfield, and it was a testimony to the barrier Sutton and his colleagues constructed in front of Magnus Hedman that the biggest scare the goalkeeper had was a misplaced header from one of his own men, Stanislav Varga, in the dying minutes.
Though it required only a short trip across Glasgow, Celtic's performance had the hallmarks of a European away encounter. Alex McLeish fell victim just as sides such as Liverpool and VfB Stuttgart did last season in that Uefa Cup odyssey. "Celtic are a big side and are hard to beat when they get bodies behind the ball, as we have seen in Europe, and we never really had a cutting edge," said the Rangers manager. "However, there is a long way to go in this League."
Admiration for Klos grew from the 10th minute, when the keeper produced a fine save to deny Alan Thompson after Henrik Larsson had advanced into the box and laid a perfect cut-back into the midfielder's path. Thompson soon succumbed to a hamstring injury, allowing Michael Gray - on loan from Sunderland - to make his Old Firm debut, but the switch did not disrupt Celtic's solidity.
Klos eclipsed his earlier work with a remarkable stop four minutes before the interval. Stilian Petrov's cut-back was met by Hartson's right boot, but Klos threw himself to paw the shot wide. However, Hartson would not be denied. The robust striker flicked a header into Larsson's path and galloped on for the reverse pass. He tried to clip the ball back for Larsson, but it sailed over Klos and went in off the underside of the bar.
Larsson was poised to pull the trigger to make it 2-0 17 minutes from the end, but Henning Berg produced a goal-line block and then Petrov failed to finish after rounding Klos. But nothing could halt Celtic's momentum.
O'Neill could not help but praise Sutton, whose form in his correct position has drawn the attention of Sven Goran Eriksson. "I brought Chris here as a centre-forward and he would prefer to play there, but he's so versatile," said the manager. "I have now used him in three positions in the last two games."
The only position that concerned Celtic's fans last night was being first.
Rangers 0 Celtic 1
Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 49,825
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