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There was a surreal touch to this Old Firm encounter â€“ Celtic supporters even cheered Rangers’ goals â€“ but a familiar feeling too. Controversy lurks at these fixtures, almost as an ominous prerequisite. Neil Lennon launched a withering attack on the referee, Calum Murray, after seeing his Celtic side reduced to nine men in the 57th minute and enduring his own brush with officialdom.
Lennon essentially accused the match officials of collusion following a defeat by opponents who appeared to enjoy postponing their old adversaries’ title-winning party as much as they relished clinching the championship at Celtic Park in 1999. Lennon had waited to have words with Murray as the teams left the field at half-time and was subsequently told he would not be allowed to take his place in the dugout for the second period.
“My sending off is a joke,” said Celtic’s manager. “I spoke quite quietly and coldly to the referee in the tunnel. I didn’t swear and didn’t point any fingers. I told him I wasn’t happy with his first-half performance. I’ve got witnesses. I wanted to see him [the referee] after the game and I got a message back to wait 20 minutes later then I could go and see him. Twenty minutes later he wouldn’t see me. I was speaking to the match delegate after the game and their version of events are different from mine. I’ve got witnesses to back me up.
“I do my team talk at half-time, I walk back out and got called into the referee’s room. I have been deprived of doing my job properly when my team needed me. I am very angry about that.” It merely added to Lennon’s ire that he was unable to take a seat in the Ibrox main stand on security advice. Instead, he watched the closing 45 minutes on a television monitor in the media room. “That just sums things up in this country,” Lennon said.
“The biggest game of the season and I can’t go out in the stand to watch my team or send down messages. I have Stevie Woods [goalkeeping coach] at the door and he was running up and down the tunnel for me. I might as well have sat in the house and watched the second half.
“When you are down to nine men, it is an uphill task. This is not the first time we have come to Ibrox and had players sent off for little or nothing.”
This affair promises to rumble on. Still, what Lennon should not ignore is that too many of his players underperformed on the big occasion. Celtic had travelled to Ibrox looking for the victory which would secure the Scottish Premier League championship but left wounded; their own shortcomings, added to Rangers’ dynamic showing, are worthy of more focus than Lennon would publicly prefer.
The hosts took supreme delight in winning the only match in this troubled denouement to their season that they care about. For the first time in Lennon’s tenure, Celtic have lost back-to-back domestic matches. It would be a pity if Celtic, who have obviously been the superior side in Scotland in this campaign, crawl over the SPL finishing line.
Glasgow derbies never resemble tea parties but the pre-match scene was quite something. The Rangers support, who excel in defiance, offered something akin to the last stand of the British empire. And what a din they created in doing so.
Celtic’s contingent, as was the case even after the result was decided, vociferously pointed out exactly where the SPL trophy will be housed sooner or later. Still, the intense sentiment attached to the Old Firm means those in green and white could only attempt to mask the hurt associated with derby defeat.
Sone Aluko, who excelled for Rangers, claimed a terrific opening goal. The Nigerian nutmegged Thomas Rogne and skipped past Charlie Mulgrew before offering a low, near-post finish.
That at least roused Celtic into something resembling an attacking force for a brief period. Georgios Samaras stung the palms of the Rangers goalkeeper Allan McGregor before Anthony Stokes wasted a fine chance with the rebound. Stokes was similarly profligate with a back-post header after 27 minutes.
Just 120 seconds later, Celtic had been reduced to 10 men. Cha Du-ri clearly pulled back Lee Wallace, 19 yards from goal, as the midfielder sought to collect an Aluko pass. The fairest assessment of the incident arrived from the Rangers manager, Ally McCoist.
“Did he prevent a goalscoring opportunity? Probably. Was it a soft sending off? Probably,” said McCoist. Murray will maintain the dismissal was correct by the letter of the law and not unreasonably so. In such situations, referees are hamstrung by rules rather than blessed with common sense.
What is beyond dispute is that Cha’s exit doused any sentiment that Celtic could claw themselves back into the proceedings. Lennon was clear on whom he blamed for that, branding a subsequent decision not to hand Samaras a free-kick as a “joke” to anyone with an even basic command of lip reading.
Victor Wanyama became the second Celtic player to have his afternoon cut short, 12 minutes after the interval. The midfielder has little defence after challenging Steven Whittaker with two feet, although McCoist once again was reasonable. “Did he set out to harm the player?” asked the Rangers manager. “Definitely not, in my opinion.”
From there, the burning question was whether McCoist’s men had the ruthlessness required to capitalise on a numerical advantage. Answers arrived from Andrew Little, who slammed home at close range, and Wallace, who met a Steven Davis pass before offering a low finish.
By that juncture, Celtic’s fans had written the encounter off more than their players had. With two minutes remaining, Carlos Bocanegra upended Samaras inside the penalty area to prompt another flash of red from Murray. Scott Brown dispatched the penalty with Rogne heading a Celtic second past McGregor in stoppage time.
“If you want me to talk about the referee, I will, but in the grand picture we won the game and deserved to win,” added McCoist.
That much may be true, but discussion in the coming days will surround altogether different issues. The more things change, and all that.
Man of the match Sone Aluko (Rangers)