McDonald wins the strikers' battle

Rangers 0 Celtic 1
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The Independent Football

The festive Old Firm game and possibly the title race on Saturday was defined by two moves, the first involving Kris Boyd, of Rangers, and an opportunity missed, and the second starring Scott McDonald, of Celtic, who seized a moment in the winter sun.

Boyd and McDonald were born three days apart in August 1983, Boyd in Ayrshire, McDonald in Australia.

Boyd has played all his football in Scotland, for Kilmarnock and Rangers. McDonald travelled from Melbourne to England for a break in the Premier League as a teenager with Southampton.

He was then released by a manager who thought he would never cut it (Gordon Strachan), but has rarely looked back since, making hay with Motherwell, and since 2007 with Celtic, whose manager, Strachan, has realised he can cut it.

Both Boyd and McDonald have extraordinary strike rates, ranking respectively second (Boyd) and fourth (McDonald) in the SPL all-time scoring charts. In terms of SPL goals per game, they are not so far apart with Boyd on 0.53 (132 goals in 247 games in eight years) and McDonald on 0.46 (74 in 161 in four).

At lunchtime on Saturday, the statistics became just so many decimal places. McDonald won the test that mattered most.

Boyd's big moment came in the 47th minute when set free on goal by a pass to feet from his captain, Barry Ferguson. Destiny beckoned. If, if, if...

If Boyd were able to wheel away from the looming one-on-one with Celtic's goalkeeper, Artur Boruc, striking his chest in Cantona-esque celebration having buried his 19th goal of the season, then Scotland was his.

If he could score, then the barbs that he could not hack it at the sharp end could be thrown back at his critics. Scotland's manager, George Burley, could start 2009 by tucking into a mound of humble pie and go begging Boyd to reconsider his decision not to play for Scotland. If he could just look up briefly, clock the angle for a diagonal tuck-away and let his prolific muscle memory take care of the rest, Rangers would be in front, surely on course for three points, just a point behind Celtic and with momentum on their side as the new year started. Maybe it was just such a thought that clogged Boyd's brain for a second too long. Certainly something delayed him. He waited, and then he struck the ball straight at Boruc.

Eleven minutes later and a long ball was flying up the other end of the pitch. Georgios Samaras knocked it on. McDonald spun his man, waited for the bounce and cracked a pearler of a volley into the top corner. No messing. No mulling. No hesitation. Game over.

The bookmakers say the title race is over too. Celtic are now widely reckoned to be the 1-4 favourites, with Rangers 3-1 rank outsiders in this annual two-horse race. It is not impossible for Rangers to come back.

There have been close shaves in recent years to say that. Celtic's erosion of a huge deficit in the 2008 run-in is exhibit A. But there is a large body of logic that says Celtic are well on course for four in a row. Unlike Rangers last season, Celtic have no European distractions and there will be no backlog of fixtures to fit in at the end of the season.

Seven points is a lead big enough for Celtic to lose both remaining Old Firm games and still win the title, all other things being equal. Precedent favours Celtic, too, in as much as only once in SPL history have the halfway leaders not won the League.

Celtic are also leading, despite a run of games without some of their best players. They are about to become stronger, whereas it is hard to see, without spending, how Rangers will do the same.

Celtic, above all, have better players, man for man. And more individual match-winners. McDonald is just one, whereas for Rangers, Boyd is the one. Sometimes.

Goal: McDonald (58) 0-1. Rangers (4-4-2): McGregor; Whittaker (Novo, 74), Broadfoot, Weir, Papac; Davis, Ferguson, Mendes, Adam (Lafferty, 62); Miller, Boyd. Substitutes not used: Alexander (gk), McCulloch, Dailly, Niguez, Fleck. Celtic (4-4-2): Boruc; Hinkel (Wilson, h-t), Caldwell, McManus, Naylor; S Brown, Robson, Hartley, Mizuno (O'Dea, 62); McDonald, Samaras. Substitutes not used: M Brown (gk), Vennegoor of Hesselink, Loovens, Crosas, Hutchinson. Referee: C Thomson. Booked: Rangers Adam; Celtic Naylor, Caldwell. Man of the match: McDonald. Attendance: 50,403.