Novo pours new fuel on old fires

Rangers 2 Celtic 0
Click to follow

"This game had explosion written all over it," declared Martin O'Neill after the dust settled on a day of vitriol at Ibrox yesterday. Whether it has weakened the foundations of Celtic's empire, only time will tell.

"This game had explosion written all over it," declared Martin O'Neill after the dust settled on a day of vitriol at Ibrox yesterday. Whether it has weakened the foundations of Celtic's empire, only time will tell.

The Scottish Premier League champions had their lead at the top of the table whittled down to one point by a hungry Rangers side, who seized on their rivals' indiscipline to inflict a defeat that could seriously damage Celtic's morale.

O'Neill's team finished the encounter with nine men, when Alan Thompson and Chris Sutton were sent off after Nacho Novo and Dado Prso had given Rangers a first-half lead they never looked like relinquishing.

Thompson was dismissed for an incident six minutes before half-time that triggered a furious mêlée between the teams and poured petrol on to the flames of a smouldering encounter. It also cloaked his "victim", Peter Lovenkrands, in a very unfavourable light.

The Dane had already been booked for a late tackle on Jackie McNamara, when Thompson ran in and stood eyeball-to-eyeball with Lovenkrands. The Rangers player then went down clutching his face as if headbutted, something television pictures made a mockery of. Referee Kenny Clark was not afforded the same view and produced a red card for the Englishman.

Later, O'Neill insisted he would look at video footage with a view to making an appeal against Thompson's red card. Ironically, that is what Rangers did to allow Novo to play in this derby - when he had a red card wiped out after a television review - but the Spaniard could be back in the dock. He was caught on camera kicking out at McNamara, then stamping on the head of Stephen Pearson.

Not surprisingly, O'Neill had plenty to say later. By then, though, his mood was obvious and he betrayed it by going on to the pitch at the end and parading Neil Lennon - who was ritually abused by the home fans - to the Celtic supporters behind one goal. It was unheard of in the combustible Old Firm arena, but it was clearly an act of defiance from O'Neill.

He slated Clark's handling of the game and did not miss Lovenkrands either. "I don't think Lovenkrands should be too pleased with himself," said O'Neill. "Thompson went towards him, and you always run the risk when that happens, but there was no contact. If there is grounds for an appeal, I will look at it.

"But I think the review panel will be very busy," he added. "Novo lashed out at McNamara and his challenge on Pearson was terrible."

Alex McLeish was Wengeresque about Lovenkrands' role, saying he had not seen it, but tellingly substituted him at half-time and said: "He's had a yellow card and I worried that he might be the victim of a second-half tackle."

In addition, the Rangers substitute Bob Malcolm was rushed up the tunnel by police for making a gesture at the visiting fans after Novo's penalty put his team in front on 15 minutes, and Novo himself was then warned by a policeman for a similar act. All in all, just another episode in Glasgow's bitter 116-year-old turf war.

Rangers had been under intense pressure for the opening period when their goal came, literally, out of the blue. A cross by Zurab Khizanishvili was poorly headed out by the hapless Bobo Baldé and just as Novo seized on it, Joos Valgaeren cut him down. Novo sent Magnus Hedman the wrong way and Rangers had the advantage they craved.

Stanislav Varga ought to have equalised just after the half-hour when he met Stilian Petrov's corner but his downward header drifted just wide. However, Rangers then doubled their lead in the 36th minute. Sutton gave away a foul - and collected a yellow card - for a challenge on Alex Rae, allowing Fernando Ricksen to deliver a free-kick that Prso looped over Hedman.

Three minutes later, Thompson was gone, and nine minutes into the second half, Sutton, in an act of sheer folly, earned his second caution for a needless handball and Celtic faced a torrid finale with just nine men.

McLeish now knows his team are back in the race. "We've had a lot to prove to finally shut people up," he bristled.