Larsson spearheads charge as Celtic confirm superiority

Rangers 1 Celtic 2
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The good news for Rangers fans is that their suffering will soon be over. Celtic did their best yesterday to put their rivals out of their misery by securing the success at Ibrox that puts them just two wins away from clinching the Scottish Premier League title.

Alan Thompson celebrated his call-up to the England squad by scoring the decisive goal that opened up a 19-point lead and signalled the arrival of a third championship in four seasons under Martin O'Neill's guidance.

If Thompson is going to England, O'Neill clearly is not, following Sven Goran Eriksson's announcement yesterday. The charismatic manager looks like staying put at Parkhead and if Henrik Larsson is leaving, the bad news for Rangers is that his is far from a one-man team.

Larsson netted for the 15th time in an Old Firm game, on his last appearance at Ibrox, and Rangers will be glad to see the back of the Swede. Even Steven Thompson, who scored an 81st-minute consolation, admitted that the only hope for Rangers is that Celtic implode after Larsson's departure. Some hope.

O'Neill had pivotal players in every area of the pitch, all showing remarkable energy levels just three days after running themselves into the Nou Camp's turf to secure a place in the Uefa Cup quarter finals. "Coming on the back of the Barcelona game, I expected this to be tough," the Celtic manager said. "We tired near the end but the players have got such desire and hunger that they always give everything."

When asked the secret of Celtic's success, he simply replied: "I think we are a very fine team." Steven Thompson dared to go a step further. "That is the best Celtic side in my lifetime," the Scotland striker said. "They are at the peak of their powers after four years together and all we can hope is that it can't go on forever. Maybe once Larsson leaves, Celtic will hit a plateau and we can get stronger."

However, the gulf was underlined by Thompson's 81st-minute header from Chris Burke's corner. That was the first time Rangers had found the net in four meetings with Celtic - three in the League and another in the Scottish Cup - and Rangers had lost them all.

Rangers have won just once in 13 League encounters with O'Neill's side, which is why there was never any doubt about the result once Larsson rose unchallenged to meet Alan Thompson's well-delivered free-kick in the 19th minute.

The Rangers manager, Alex McLeish, was furious with the "joke defending" at that costly incident. His team might have equalised before half-time but David Marshall, the teenage goalkeeper who had broken Barcelona hearts in the Nou Camp, reprised that role here.

The keeper produced two good saves inside a few minutes when he turned a header from his own defender, Stan Varga, on to the post and then pushed away a header from the young right-back Allan Hutton.

Celtic then killed the contest in the 51st minute when Thompson marked his international call-up by scoring his sixth derby goal. The midfielder pounced on the rebound after Larsson had set up Stephen Pearson, whose shot was saved by Stefan Klos.

Celtic then went in for the kill. Varga hit the crossbar with a header and Klos made a remarkable save to deny Larsson, who had met Sutton's cross with a flick from four yards that Klos pushed wide.

"At that stage, I feared the worst," said McLeish. "Stefan made a fantastic save but Celtic looked like scoring every time they went up the pitch."

Goals: 0-1 Larsson (19) 0-1; A Thompson (51) 0-2; S Thompson (81) 1-2.

Rangers (4-4-2): Klos; Hutton, Khizanishvili (Burke 58), Moore, Ball; Rae, Malcolm (Ricksen 80), Hughes, Lovenkrands (S Thompson 65); R de Boer, Mols. Substitutes not used: McGregor (gk), Berg.

Celtic (3-5-2): Marshall; Balde, Varga, Kennedy; Agathe, Petrov, Lennon, Pearson (Miller 77), A Thompson; Larsson, Sutton. Substitutes not used: McGovern (gk), Sylla, Lambert, Mjallby.

Referee: K Clark.

Booked: Rangers: Lovenkrands, Moore.

Man of the match: Pearson.

Attendance: 49,909.