Braham Hemdani salvaged a portion of pride for Rangers at Ibrox against their arch rivals yesterday by equalising with two minutes left in an entertaining match to cancel out Thomas Gravesen's venomous first-half opener.
The sting in this tale is that while Celtic were denied a stonewall penalty at 1-0 up, it is Rangers who really should have won, and they had multiple chances to do so. A combination of woeful finishing and an excellent afternoon's work by Celtic's keeper, Artur Boruc, meant instead that the points were shared, and the destination of the SPL title remains no less certain.
Celtic top the table by a margin of 14 points from Aberdeen, with Rangers in third place, 16 points adrift in the Old Firm battle for supremacy. Some bookmakers paid out on Celtic weeks ago and the chances of egg on faces for that decision are remote indeed.
The Rangers manager, Paul Le Guen said afterwards that he was "happy with the performance, if not the result" and added he was most pleased that his team are improving markedly and gaining consistency. "We showed we can compete," he said. "We were better than three months ago when we lost [2-0] at Celtic Park. We are becoming harder to beat, and we never gave up."
Yet dark clouds still hover. Rumours persist of a lack of harmony in Rangers' dressing room, of cliques divided along nationality lines, and about the fractious nature of the relationship between Le Guen and his captain, Barry Ferguson. Le Guen was given ample opportunity to deny all this yesterday but failed to do so. "I know my team," was all he said cryptically when asked if there was disharmony. "I know each one very well and who is who. I don't want to speak to you about that."
Asked what he thought of Ferguson's belief that the captaincy is hugely important, and presumably influential, the Frenchman said: "He thinks what he thinks. But I'm the boss."
The season continues to run smoothly for Le Guen's counterpart Gordon Strachan, who praised "a cracking game of football, with goals, tackles, the lot". He also rightly criticised both the pitch - "a mudheap"- and the decision not to award his side a spot-kick after Neil Lennon had been felled by Stevie Smith, but he left a happy man. His team are on the way to back-to-back titles, while Milan, having only a so-so season in Serie A, beckon in the Champions' League.
Celtic will need to improve to stay in contention in Europe, but even below their best their key players made themselves known. Gravesen combined with the pacy Aidan McGeady to threaten early, then Mark Wilson, Shunsuke Nakamura and Jiri Jarosik linked well to get the ball in the box, if not score.
Ferguson was first to hit the target, after 15 minutes, but Boruc held easily. Nacho Novo then dribbled on goal, was felled, and earned a free-kick that eventually fell to Ferguson, who scooped over an open net from the edge of the six-yard box. It was a head-in-the-hands miss, and Ferguson said: "If I had scored my chance I think it would have been a different outcome. I'm not used to having time to think, when I go through I'm normally running on to a ball. I'm just happy we got a point. At least we showed a bit of spirit - that is what is needed if you want to play for Rangers."
Novo tested Boruc again shortly afterwards, eliciting a fine one-handed save, before Rangers had a penalty shout legitimately turned down for a prior offside.
Celtic took the lead when Lee Naylor's cross from the left flew over an empty box and an Awol defence to Gravesen, who from an acute angle rattled his drive hard and high into the net.
In the second half, Dado Prso (twice), Libor Sionko, Novo, Karl Svensson and Filip Sebo all had narrow misses or shots saved, before Hemdani finally gained parity.
Goals: Gravesen (38) 0-1; Hemdani (88) 1-1.
Rangers (4-4-2): McGregor; Hutton, Svensson, Hemdani, Smith; Sionko (Sebo, 72), Ferguson, Clement, Adam (Buffel, 81); Novo, Prso. Substitutes not used: Klos (gk), Papac, Rae, Rodriguez, Stanger.
Celtic: (4-4-1-1): Boruc; Wilson, Balde, McManus, Naylor; Nakamura (Miller, 72), Lennon, Gravesen, McGeady; Jarosik (Pearson, 72); Zurawski. Substitutes not used: Marshall (gk), Riordan, O'Dea, Sno, Telfer.
Referee: K Clark (Scotland).
Booked: Rangers: Sebo. Celtic: McGeady, McManus.
Man of the match: Boruc.
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