McDonald gives Celtic more than bragging rights

Rangers 0 Celtic 1: Striker's volley opens seven-point advantage and puts green half of Glasgow in control of title race
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The Independent Online

For Celtic, the best possible end to the year, and for Rangers the worst. Scott McDonald's superbly taken second-half goal was enough to inflicton the hosts a first defeat at home in 2008, and in their last match. It also ended Rangers' 29-match unbeaten run at Ibrox in the SPL and gives Celtic a seven-point advantage at the top of the Scottish Premier League, a lead that history suggests will be decisive in the title race.

Only once since the SPL was formed a decade ago have the leadersafter 19 matches not gone on to win, and that was in 2004-05, when Celtic led at the halfway mark but Rangers took the title.

Infamously on that occasion, Celtic led into the final game, and indeed led into the final minutes, when they were on course at Motherwell for the win they required. But up popped McDonald – then a Motherwell striker – with two goals in two minutes to deny Celtic and hand the honours to Rangers.

The salient point is that aside from 2005-06 and 2006-07, when Rangers were in shambolic disarray under Alex McLeish and then Paul Le Guen, allowing Celtic an easy romp home, the race has been well matched for some years, epitomised by last season, when it went to the final game yet again.

Thus a seven-point gap now is significant, not that Celtic's manager, Gordon Strachan, wanted to dwell on it last night. He was simply relishing an Old Firm win that snatched back bragging rights ceded inAugust's first derby, a 4-2 defeat at Parkhead. "We play for the moment, and the moment is now, and we're enjoying beating Rangers," he said.

Celtic actually had few chances all afternoon, and none worth the name in the first half. The closest they came to the net in those first 45 minutes was when McDonald and Georgios Samaras combined to set the latter free on goal in the 21st minute, but the tall Greek could only scuff a weak effort well wide.

Rangers, urged on by a capacity crowd, expectant under cold, blue skies, came out of the traps quicker. Steven Davis on the right and Charlie Adam on the left were fed by balls from Barry Ferguson and Pedro Mendes in the middle. Davis's cross-shot in the fourth minute was blocked but he hammered a rebound shot which flew high but showed intent.

Kenny Miller ran the channels, often ahead of Adam, and in the 10th minute made a good opening for himself by nicking the ball from Andreas Hinkel and skipping away to fire in a cross. Waiting in the middle was Kris Boyd, Ibrox's enigma supreme, who – depending on where you stand in the debate – does nothing but score or cannot fail to score.

This match, the first Old Firm derby in six where Boyd has been trusted by Walter Smith to start, was seen as the most significant test yet of whether he has what it takes to deliver on the biggest of occasions. But when that ball from Miller came in from the left, and Boyd had a couple of feet of space around him, he hesitated. Granted, it was not for long, and maybe it was because his footing was imperfect, but he took a touch for control,and only then shaped to shoot. Too late. Stephen McManus had been allowed the crucial seconds to move and block.

Moments later, Rangers had the ball in the back of the net after Hinkel had sliced it into the air and it fell into a scrum of players, but the referee, Craig Thomson, disallowed the "goal", rightly, for a push on the Celtic goalkeeper.

Six minutes after that, Miller crossed again towards Boyd, in a similar position to before. This time Gary Caldwell intercepted even before the ball had reached Boyd. Rangers pressed. Scott Brown's attempted clearance was stopped by Mendes, who saw Miller running towards the left of the area. Celtic's fans clocked him, too, and began to yell abuse at their former striker, just as he controlled Mendes' pass and shot, wide left.

Boyd then turned provider for Miller, heading on a long ball. Miller could only shoot over. That was it for first-half chances, but Rangers' best of the match came two minutes after the break. Ferguson ran forward from midfield with the ball. Boyd was slightly ahead and to his right when Ferguson laid the ball off. Boyd took control to put himself in a one-on-one with Boruc. But again there was a slight hesitation. Instead of an instinctive wallop –€and from the stands, the spectators'-eye view suggested a diagonal shot across Boruc was possible –€Boyd took another couple of steps. By the time he shot, Boruc had had time to move to block. The ball rebounded, but Boyd did not have time to control it before it ran out.

Boyd had one more chance in the game, eight minutes later from a free-kick inside the "D" after Caldwell had felled Miller in the process of controlling Ferguson's ball over the top. He struck the set-piece firmly but into the wall. The ball rebounded to Steven Whittaker, whose shot was deflected for a corner, which came to nothing for Rangers but led to the move that ended in Celtic's winner.

Caldwell's long ball was flicked on by Samaras for McDonald, who turned inside Kirk Broadfoot, waited for the ball to drop, and hit the sweetest volley into the top corner. "He was phenomenal today," Strachan said of McDonald. "[Samaras] got better as the game went on, and together they got a fantastic goal."

It was a good one, certainly, and an important one. And, in all probability,defining.

Attendance: 50,403

Referee: C Thomson

Man of the match: McDonald

Match rating: 6/10

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