When Alex McLeish signed Frank de Boer in the January transfer window, he insisted that the Netherlands' most capped footballer was only being paid "petrol money" to keep him within the new frugal budgets of a club that is £68m in debt. Yesterday, De Boer and Rangers ran out of gas, as their season spluttered to a halt with 10 weeks to go.
The Treble of last season has been replaced by the trial of this one, and McLeish's team gave up its last piece of silverware yesterday in the last place they would have chosen to do so. Being knocked out of the Scottish Cup at Parkhead as their rivals got ready to welcome Barcelona in the Uefa Cup summed up the gap in Glasgow.
It was not the loan Ranger (De Boer joined his twin, Ronald, at Ibrox from Galatasaray) who was responsible for Rangers losing this taut quarter-final, more the familiar figure who has taunted them these past few years, Henrik Larsson.
The prolific striker found the net for the 28th time this season, early in the second half, to condemn Rangers to a spectating role for the rest of the campaign. Celtic are so far ahead in the title race - 16 points - Rangers would need a fast car to catch up.
But even though McLeish dropped five players from the side who lost last week at Dundee United, and hinted many of them - such as Nuno Capucho, Emerson and Michael Mols - will never play again for his team, a fourth successive defeat by Martin O'Neill showed that the real problem goes much deeper than mere individuals. "Celtic have the kind of understanding I would like in my team," the Rangers manager mused afterwards. "It has taken them four years to get that. I can see light at the end of the tunnel. However, some of my signings have not found it easy to adapt to the culture here."
Larsson - ploughing a lone furrow with John Hartson, Shaun Maloney and Chris Sutton missing through injury - struck the post with a header before half-time, but in the 53rd minute, he did not require another chance. Alan Thompson clipped in a free-kick which Bobo Baldé headed down to Stephan Pearson, and though Stefan Klos parried the shot, Larsson drilled in the rebound.
"I am just glad to be into the semi-finals," O'Neill said. "I felt the team was a bit tired after our trip to Teplice in midweek, but hopefully we can get Sutton fit for the Barcelona match. Henrik enjoys playing alongside him and Chris is a vital player for us."
Goal: Larsson (53) 1-0.
Celtic (4-5-1): Douglas; McNamara, Baldé, Varga, Valgaeren (Kennedy, 85); Agathe, Lennon, Petrov, Pearson (Beattie, 57; Sylla, 90), Thompson; Larsson. Substitutes not used: Marshall (gk), Lambert.
Rangers (3-5-2): Klos; Moore, Berg, F de Boer; Ricksen, Hughes (Thompson, 66), Arteta (R de Boer, 35), Rae, Ball; Arveladze, Lovenkrands. Substitutes not used: McGregor (gk), Khizanishvili, Ross.
Referee: H Dallas.
Bookings: Celtic: Baldé; Rangers: Klos, Ricksen.
Man of the match: McNamara.
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