Maciej Zurawski's first-half goal sealed this dull Old Firm derby yesterday to take Celtic 13 points clear in the table, establish them as the 1-33 favourites for the championship, and cast fresh gloom over a dire Rangers season that could yet get even worse.
The home side are out of both domestic cups and, lying 21 points behind Celtic, have no chance of retaining their Scottish Premier League title. The only trophy still up for grabs for departing manager Alex McLeish is the Champions' League, though the more important target is salvaging something from their domestic campaign.
They lie fourth this morning, two points behind third-place Hibernian, and eight behind second-placed Hearts. If they fail to climb any higher in the 12 remaining games, there will be no European football at Ibrox next season for the first time in 25 years.
That alone is a depressing prospect for Rangers fans, for whom gloomy statistics have become a feature of the season. The latest is that yesterday's win marked their third straight defeat, and without mustering a goal in any of those games.
The repercussions could be more serious still. The Rangers chairman, David Murray, has identified Paul Le Guen, the former Lyon manager, as his No1 choice to succeed McLeish, who will step down in May. But no deal has yet been finalised, and there is increasing concern at Ibrox that the Frenchman might want to wait until he knows whether Rangers will be playing European football next season before he signs.
His long-time assistant, Yves Colleu, was in the crowd yesterday and is unlikely to have been impressed with what he saw. Zurawski's goal emphasised the home side's defensive shambles. Mavin Andrews and Sotirios Kyrgiakos hampered each other as they tried to clear the ball, leaving Bob Malcolm to thwart a shot from Stilian Petrov. But that left Zurawski unattended to turn and slot a low, diagonal shot into the corner from 14 yards.
There were few other clear-cut chances but the best of them fell to Rangers and were wasted. Celtic's goalkeeper, Artur Boruc, cleared directly to Dado Prso, who lacked the pace to outrun Bobo Balde. Thomas Buffel either miscued his shot from eight yards or over-hit his pass to Nacho Novo when given a clear sight of goal. Then, in the final minute, Prso failed to cut the ball back from the edge of the six-yard box with two team-mates unmarked in the centre.
Celtic were unspectacular throughout, but never less than measured and professional. Roy Keane exemplified their approach. He broke up home advances with some excellent tackling - and a cynical one on Prso that earned him a yellow yard but did its job. And he also started or maintained a number of Celtic attacks with simple, efficient passing. It was a respectable Old Firm derby debut and at the very least keeps open Gordon Strachan's options of playing Keane and Lennon together in the centre, as they did yesterday.
Though Shunsuke Nakamura was rested to accommodate them, costing Celtic the flair that the Japanese playmaker can bring, the objective for now is to close out the title, not to indulge in fancy football. "Our discipline was excellent," said Strachan, whose side registered their first clean sheet since November.
Goals: Zurawski (12) 0-1.
Rangers (4-5-1): Waterreus; Hutton, Andrews, Kyrgiakos (Rodriguez, 66), Smith; Burke, Ferguson, Buffel (Boyd, 72), Malcolm, Novo (Lovenkrands, 62); Prso. Substitutes not used: Klos (gk), Hemdani, Murray, Namouchi.
Celtic (4-4-2): Boruc; Telfer, Balde, McManus, Wilson; Petrov, Lennon, Keane, Maloney (Pearson, 89); Hartson (Dublin, 74), Zurawski. Substitutes not used: Marshall (gk), Thompson, Nakamura, Wallace, McGlinchey.
Referee: M McCurry.
Booked: Rangers Prso, Kyrgiakos, Boyd; Celtic Keane.
Man of the match: Keane.
Attendance: 49,788.Reuse content