McLeish cup double hints at shifting balance

Scottish Cup Final: Rangers' renaissance continues as last-minute Lovenkrands header sinks Celtic and gives O'Neill plenty to ponder
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The Independent Football

The most celebrated exponents of surrealism may be Spanish, but even Real Madrid would be hard pushed to eclipse this offering in nine days' time.

If the European Cup final can summon up as much drama as the Old Firm, then Europe will be captivated. The Scottish Cup final was inspired by the new velvet green surface laid down for Raul and co. but the last brushstroke belonged to the world of the surreal.

Like those melting clocks of Salvador Dali, time stood still for Celtic in the 92nd minute. Just as extra-time beckoned, Neil McCann's surge down the left was rewarded with Peter Lovenkrands' diving header.

Celtic's cherished Double disappeared in an instant, as did their fans. By the time Martin O'Neill's side trooped up to collect their losers medals, their half of the stadium was eerily empty.

"To lose in the last 10 seconds of the game takes a bit of getting over," reflected the Celtic manager. Time could be a healer, but Alex McLeish and everyone else at Rangers are already counting down the days until the new season.

Restoring the blue period is McLeish's work-in-progress. The Rangers manager senses that the pendulum is now swinging back towards Ibrox. Two trophies in barely six months since replacing Dick Advocaat and four Old Firm derbies without defeat. McLeish is posing questions that O'Neill seems unable to answer. "It has exceeded all expectations," McLeish said. "I did not come to Rangers simply to get a better wage, I came to win things.

"Last November, people said it was looking like another Celtic Treble, now we have two-thirds of the domestic trophies."

McLeish, though, refuses to burden himself with pressure for next season. "I don't think that we will be favourites for the title," he said. "Martin is a shrewd manager and he and Celtic will look at this game and realise that they have a challenge."

It was left to an Italian, naturally, to be a little more forceful about predicting a Rangers renaissance. "We are confident about next season," declared Lorenzo Amoruso. "We lost the league so early in the season but we have now won two trophies."

Amoruso expanded on his theme. Celtic, he claims, are tutto brutto. "Everyone knows Celtic are physically strong and try to win games with corners and set-pieces but we have more quality and play more on the ground."

But for all the defender's sharp analysis, his own errors were significant. Amoruso twice failed to deal with Bobo Balde and on each occasion it allowed Celtic's towering defender to inflict damage.

Balde met Alan Thompson's 18th-minute corner at the back post and when his downward header bounced up, John Hartson gleefully guided it into the roof of the net.

Lovenkrands quickly restored parity with a crisp shot after seizing on a mix-up between Chris Sutton and Johan Mjallby, but when Balde rose above Amoruso – who had recklessly fouled Henrik Larsson – and headed Neil Lennon's angled free-kick past Stefan Klos, the Double seemed poised for completion.

Barry Ferguson changed all that, however. The Rangers captain insisted the last time he scored from a free-kick was when he was 14, but the adrenaline saw him push aside the regular exponents to curl in a sublime equaliser in the 68th minute.

Such artistry will have whetted the appetite of those clubs in England, principally Liverpool and Leeds, who covet Ferguson. The £10m-rated midfielder will meet the chairman, David Murray, on Wednesday to assess his future. However, Ferguson said: "I am at one of Europe's biggest clubs, I have no need to go anywhere."

His counterpart, Paul Lambert, was in tears at the end. Celtic's captain failed to make it to half-time when it became obvious to O'Neill that gambling on his fragile ankle was perilous. The wisdom of using the equally unfit Sutton was exposed at both Lovenkrands goals.

"We didn't have the energy levels normally associated with our side," said O'Neill. "I thought we would see it through to extra-time and I could make a change. The disappointment will still be here next week, but we must not forget that we have won the title and we're in the Champions' League next season."

Celtic (3-5-2): Douglas; Balde, Sutton, Mjallby; Agathe, Lambert (McNamara, 44), Lennon, Petrov, Thompson; Hartson, Larsson. Substitutes not used: Gould (gk), Boyd, Moravcik, Guppy.

Rangers (4-3-3): Klos; Ross, Amoruso, Moore, Numan; Ricksen, Ferguson, de Boer; Caniggia (Arveladze 21), Lovenkrands, McCann. Substitutes not used: McGregor (gk), Vidmar, Nerlinger, Flo.

Referee: H Dallas.

Bookings: Celtic: Balde, Hartson; Rangers: Amoruso, Moore (Rangers).

Man of the match: Ferguson.

Attendance: 51,138.